In the summer of 2001 I participated as a state titleholder in the Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA) Pageant. I had listened to the encouragement of friends and family who felt I would make a competent spokesperson and advocate. I did not want to be Ms. Wheelchair America. I wanted to start a program in my state to help select New York titleholders on an annual basis. I went to the national MWA pageant to learn how to be a state coordinator and to meet other female advocates.
I was excited as the airport van pulled into the hotel. Soon I would get to meet the other women who were my fellow titleholders. Would they be pageant princesses? Would we get along? Would this be a waste of time and money or would I really make friends and find fellow allies committed to advocacy? My sister Sandy gathered our belongings while I rode the lift out of the van. Seated next to the front door of the hotel were two women who looked like sisters, one wearing a sash. They looked at me with interest and then the sash-wearer cracked a huge smile and shouted, “Well hello New York! I’m Nebraska!” I smiled in return and knew I had found a friend.
Crystal, or “Nebraska” as I continue to call her, and her sister were in the room across the hall from me and Sandy. We spent a great deal of time together that pageant week during titleholder line ups as there weren’t any representatives from states alphabetically between ours. There were many competitive women at the pageant, but neither of us was there with the goal of winning the national title. At orientation the first night we listened to the lecture about appropriate behavior then promptly headed to the bar with five other women as soon as we were dismissed. We sat scouting out the others, naming those we thought might be candidates for the finalists. I was certain Crystal would be a finalist and she was just as adamant it would be me, not her.
At the end of the week, neither of us left with the crown on our head. Crystal and I did very well – Second and First Runner Up respectively – but we both knew we were leaving with something much more important than a sash and crown. We parted as “sisters” of a sort – friends united by life circumstances, sharing an understanding and appreciation of our struggles and accomplishments. Although Crystal has not lived with her mobility impairment her entire life, she has faced many of the same obstacles and stigmas I have. As another chick in a chair, I know she relates to my stories because chances are she has had a similar experience.
Over the years Crystal and I have had the opportunity to watch other women develop relationships through MWA. Crystal served as the Ms. Wheelchair Nebraska state coordinator for several years while I served the same role for the New York program. She served as a judge here in NY, and I traveled to Nebraska to be a judge. We volunteered as officers on the MWA Board of Directors. The 2001 national pageant was just the first of many national pageants for the two of us. Crystal’s dedication to the organization helped push the program into more states, with stronger state coordinators and titleholders.
Crystal listens without judgment and does not hesitate to remind me how important it is to be kind to my body. She understands my fear of vulnerability and never uses it against me but rather encourages me to examine my authenticity with others. Crystal is genuine and loving, forgiving and compassionate. She is independent and determined, gracious and tolerant.
I am grateful for the entire network of “sisters” I gained over the years through my involvement with MWA, and especially for my Nebraska buddy Crystal. Thank you Crystal for smiling at me when I needed reassurance, for calmly reminding me to put myself first sometimes and for all of those happy hour chats with wine. I’m grateful to have you as part of my “inner circle” and honored to be a part of yours.