It's easy to pick out Kayshauna Montano at Gillette Stadium, cheering on the New England Patriots at every home game. Both on game days and at appearances, she proudly wears her hair in box braids, a hairstyle that protects her long, dark locks.
The two-year veteran and 2024 Patriots Cheerleader calendar cover model exudes confidence, but it took time to embrace her hair and features to get to this point. Now, while competing in pageants, making a difference at work, and with the cheerleading squad, she knows to use her uniqueness as an asset.
It's become her season initiative with the Patriots Cheerleaders, as she encourages kids of a similar background to live up to their fullest potential.
"My initiative, and something that I've worked on throughout my life, is encouraging everyone to embrace who they are to the fullest without societal stigmas," Montano said in a recent interview with Patriots.com.
"I was adopted at the age of three, and growing up in an interracial family, I had a lot of trouble fitting in. I was critiqued a lot for things that I couldn't control based on my ethnicity and race. But I also still felt like I didn't necessarily fit in with people who had similarities because of my background being different. It wasn't until I embraced who I am that I could achieve certain things in my life."
Things easily could have turned out differently.
Montano was taken away from her birth mother when she was just five days old. On top of her unstable situation at home, she had serious health issues, posing a challenge for the foster family that took her in.
Fortunately, her foster parents were great people equipped to deal with her medical struggles and take her on visits to see her parents who were incarcerated. When she was adopted officially at age three by an emergency room doctor and occupational therapist, she became part of a loving home with siblings to help shape her growth.
"That's something I vividly remember – the adoption ceremony and getting ready for it," Montano said.
"My older sister was helping me get dressed, and I remember asking her, 'Why do I have to get adopted if I'm already part of the family?' She explained the whole process and how this would make it official.
"All the medical procedures I have had to have might have scared some parents. They took it in stride, and have been so supportive in anything I want to do – from school, pageants, moving, anything. Between my parents and siblings, I honestly cannot thank them enough for everything they've done for me. I truly don't know where I would be without them. For the most part, the system works to try and keep families together, which is a great benefit to a lot of kids. But for me personally, I don't think that would have ended very well. I think I would have been in a situation where my birth mother didn't understand my medical issues and I could have been sick for longer – or worse. I am just very fortunate things played out how they did."
This adoption was pivotal in changing the trajectory of her life, but a new kind of adversity presented itself when she was old enough for school.
She recalls being singled out unfairly by a teacher in kindergarten to the point that it was impacting her education and her parents felt the need to let her switch schools. She was teased in school, and couldn't help but wonder, if she didn't look the way she did, maybe things would be better.
"I would get made fun of for my nose or features," Montano said.
"I would get told that if I took my braids out and my hair was natural that I should just straighten it. I would get told that I wasn't black enough, and at the same time, the Black features I did have would get critiqued. I really struggled with my identity for a long time. It wasn't until college when I branched out on my own that I recognized the things making me unique could also be my tools for success. No one ever did anything great in this world by just going with the status quo."
Montano flourished on her equestrian team and when she started cheerleading, something she longed to do since she was five. She fell in love with the sport, and how it taught her the importance of teamwork and bonding with her friends over a common goal.
That helped at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she finally found comfort in her own skin.
She originally intended on studying to be a veterinarian, but after graduating from undergrad, a job with the Community Health Center Association of Connecticut got her wheels turning. Montano went back to UMass for her master's of science in business analytics and is currently working towards her second master's degree in public health from Brown University.
Now, she works for the New Hampshire non-profit, Makin' It Happen, where she does a lot of community outreach directed towards substance abuse prevention and mental health awareness, empowering youth with fundamental tools to be change-makers in their communities.
"I do think it makes so much sense looking back because a theme of my life has been turning pain into purpose and taking my experiences and putting them into something that can be used for good," Montano said.
"I think since I came from a situation that could have ended very badly for me, I am so fortunate for how my life turned out. Not everyone gets to say that. Not everyone has been able to experience what I have after getting adopted. There's a huge struggle that a lot of the foster children I've been able to speak to face. Being able to acknowledge that I came from a situation
exposed to substance abuse, and now I'm working in communities to help prevent that in our communities and get people the resources they need – that's where I see the parallels."
For Montano, this is much more than a job, and when Makin' It Happen hosted its Red Ribbon Breakfast recently aligned with the national initiative for substance abuse prevention, she was asked to share her story on behalf of the Patriots Cheerleaders and her season initiative.
"They asked me to speak because my story coming from my birth family coincides with substance use, as my birth mother struggled with it," Montano said.
"I spoke there, and it coincided directly with what my platform is, because I was able to teach the students that they are the pilots of their own life and they can do anything that they want to achieve. Being unique will be their asset to do that."
She's a testament to that, which is why she pours that message into every kid she meets who comes from a group home or foster care situation.
The girl who was teased in school for what made her different is now confidently wearing her box braids in beauty pageants and on the sidelines as a Patriots Cheerleader.
It's something that makes her beam with pride.
"For the Patriots Cheerleaders I auditioned once," Montano said.
"Trying out for the first time last year, and making the team with my braids was kind of a full-circle moment for me. It's something that I once felt inhibited me and my growth, and now, it's propelled me to be able to have so many experiences and invaluable moments that I never even dreamed about as a young person. I can look back on and know I made my younger self proud because we now embrace who we are to the fullest."