It started with a smooth stone with a hole at the top.

Patty Dusing's father picked it up and gave it to her. He told her she could put a chain through it and wear it as a necklace.

"It's one of a kind, just like you," he told her.

At the time, Dusing had no idea how important that stone would become.

It was there when, during her teenage years, her father and brother died when their car was struck by a train. When she desperately sought some way to ensure that their deaths were not in vain, the stone provided her with inspiration. As an adult, she began polishing rocks. Then she began making jewelry. Then she began selling jewelry.

When her niece began to express interest in modeling, Dusing used her jewelry and thrift-store clothes to arrange a fashion show for her niece and her friends and their families. That was in 2013. It dawned on her what a powerful tool she had in her hands.

"It was like these little kids are on Cloud 9," she said. "'Look at me, I'm a model.'"

She arranged a second fashion show, for some other children, then a third.

They would ask her, their faces full of self-doubt, "Do you think I'm pretty enough?"

She would respond with swift sincerity, "Of course you are."

She was giving back what her dad had given to her. When she was growing up in northwestern Minnesota, she said that her Latina heritage drew scorn from classmates. They would call her ethnic slurs, she said.

"The 'Go back to where you came from' was very confusing for me as a kid," she said. "I was born and raised in Minnesota! I was often times physically attacked at the same time as being verbally attacked. I have been punched, kicked, spit on, hair pulled all because of the color of my skin.

"Around the age of 13, I was jumped by a group of about nine girls, and yes, the verbal barrage included all of the negative Mexican connotations you can imagine and then some. I was witness to my brothers, too, getting into physical altercations."

Her dad told her not to listen to them.

"You're perfect," he would tell her. "You're my little girl and you're beautiful."

Extending a hand

Since 2013, Dusing figures she has worked with about 400 girls and young women. She arranged a show in St. Cloud for 27 kids connected with a Big Brothers Big Sisters program. She organized a big show at the Broadway Ballroom in Alexandria for Titus 2 Ministry. Sometimes, children tell her about horrible things they have endured.

"It sometimes makes me hold onto my heart and say, 'Dear God, why am I doing this? Why me?" she said. "These kids share such stories of pain and abuse. I tell them I'm sorry this happened to you. It should never have happened."

Dusing, who now owns Trend and Couture by Ann Manning in downtown Alexandria, sees fashion and makeup and the runway as tools to help kids. Anyone can come into her store for a modeling session, and she'll post their pictures on social media. She has 1,650 followers on Facebook and 780 on Instagram.

"You tell them they are worth something," she said. "You can do what you love. We're here for a purpose."

She began finding models she dubbed the "Face of Ann Manning," who would model her clothes for a year in exchange for outfits, jewelry and photo shoots.

Sarah Engebretson of Alexandria became the fourth Face of Ann Manning. Her favorite part of the job was working with Dusing.

"She's the type of person who makes everybody feel important," Engebretson said.

Hannah Blake of Fargo-Moorhead, who also worked as the Face of Ann Manning and has since signed with a modeling agency, said Dusing helped her with her confidence.

"I was pretty shy," Blake said. "Still to this day I admire her so much. She's such a kind person."

Dusing credits her dad for building up her self-esteem and allowing her to pass on the lessons she learned from him.

"He left a legacy then," she said. "His death wasn't for nothing. It meant something."