This past weekend I was the emcee at the Ms. Wheelchair New York pageant. For those of you
not paying attention who don’t know, I am a former state titleholder and have been involved with Ms. Wheelchair America and MWNY since 2001. That is a long time, trust me.
In case you have never heard of Ms. Wheelchair America, it is a nonprofit designed to spotlight the accomplishments of women who use wheelchairs for their daily community mobility. It is not a beauty pageant. Rather, contestants are judged on public speaking skills, self-perception, and advocacy efforts. The organization is run by dedicated volunteers and there are nearly 30 state programs across the country. You can learn more about it here: www.mswheelchairamerica.org
Each year, state pageants and the national program bring together women between the ages of 21-60 years and titleholders are selected. But to say the pageants are crowning ceremonies takes away from all of the real networking, bonding and peer mentoring that happens. It is hard to describe the energy of these events to those who have never attended a state or national Ms. Wheelchair pageant.
I tell others my first exposure to Ms. Wheelchair was an experience I knew would change my life. And it has – in many ways I could not have imagined back in July 2001 when I rolled into the first dinner at the national pageant. Who knew I would meet women who would become additional sisters? Who knew I would visit Iowa, Nebraska, Utah, Rhode Island, Virginia, Florida, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Arkansas doing Ms. Wheelchair work? Who knew I would serve on the national Board of Directors for eight years and develop leadership skills and expertise in nonprofit management? Who knew I would get to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a national titleholder, visible in the crowd to all of my friends and family back home watching for glimpses of me on national TV?
I don’t mention all of these opportunities and blessings to brag. After all, in the words of Gail McKoon (former President of Ms. Wheelchair America), I am a “has been.” The real stars of the program are the women who come to state pageants every year to vie for the chance to serve. These women are poised, talented, and articulate. Even though it is not a beauty pageant, they shine with a beauty unique to each of them and light up the room. I have met nurses, mothers, teachers, lawyers, occupational therapists, writers, and fellow speech-language pathologists. Contestants come from all walks of life and are a diverse group united in a common bond of viewing the world on wheels.
I am no longer the State Coordinator for MWNY, a role I held for 11 years. In 2012 I completed my last term on the MWA Board of Directors. But you never really leave the MWA family once you’ve been accepted by the ranks. I continue to volunteer at our state pageant because I believe in the opportunities a crown and sash can provide a woman who has a story to tell. Even more important is to witness the look on a little girl who uses a wheelchair when she sees a titleholder in a chair – just like her! It is common knowledge that I cry at each and every pageant. I cry because I believe in the potential of each of these women, and their story is my story. Their strength and determination renew my energy and inspire me to keep advocating in my daily life. I am proud of their growth and grateful for the chance to be a small part in the process.
The new Ms. Wheelchair New York 2015 is Andrea Dalzell. She was one of five contestants who were brave enough to compete for the chance to represent our state this year. Emily, Jordan, Bethie and Jennifer – the other contestants – are strong advocates and just as deserving of accolades. I can’t wait to see what the year has in store for each of them.