Facebook showed me this photo this morning and reminded me that seven years ago, my best friend and I were having fun in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the week of the 2011 Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA) pageant. It was a timely reminder, since the contestants are gathered in Grand Rapids again right now. They are getting ready for the second day of judging as I type this.
MWA has been a part of my life since I was Ms. Wheelchair NY 2001. As a state titleholder seventeen years ago, I could not predict all the ways MWA would impact my life. I made some of my best friends at my first national pageant as a participant in MWA. Maintaining a state program; mentoring state titleholders; serving on the MWA Board of Directors; traveling to other state pageants – all adventures gained by my volunteer involvement and things that likely would not have happened if I had been crowned Ms. Wheelchair America (I was first runner-up).
Most important to me is the peer support group I have cultivated through my involvement with MWA. In my opinion, this is the best aspect of the MWA organization. At any moment, I know I can reach out to women who have experiences similar to mine. They are creative, resourceful, smart, and generous. If I have a problem or quandary, they will have insight and will offer it freely. If I need support or understanding, they are empathetic and encouraging. This sisterhood is a valuable source of energy for me when I am feeling bogged down by the continual need to advocate for access in a world which is often not designed for our needs.
This year’s titleholders are waking up to a new day. It is mid-week so they still have energy. I hope they realize they are participating in a week which will change them. To all of them, I say best of luck and enjoy this opportunity. This week is not about who goes home with the crown on Sunday. It’s about who you connect with on the way and how you put that into practice in your everyday life when you go back home to your individual states.
There was a chill in the air this morning in upstate New York. Summer is drawing to a close and for many, this long holiday weekend signals the coming of Fall.
Local schools will begin classes next week. When I was a student, early September was the time to reconnect with friends and reminisce about summer vacations. Since many of you feel like friends to me, let me share the story of my summer vacation.
A few months ago the President of Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA), my friend Shelly Loose, called and asked me if I was ready to be a judge at the national pageant. I agreed without even checking the dates and told my best friend Steph, who has been to ten national pageants with me, to put in a vacation request. We were heading back to MWA.
For twelve summers (2001 – 2012) I spent my summer vacation at the MWA Pageant. Regular readers know I have been involved with MWA in various roles since my year as Ms. Wheelchair New York (MWNY) 2001. After representing my state at the national MWA Pageant, I volunteered as state coordinator of the MWNY program for twelve years. I served on the MWA Board of Directors as Secretary, Vice President and Executive Director. We hosted the MWA Pageant here in New York in 2005. I have often joked that the only roles I haven’t held for MWA are President and Judge. I can’t make that joke anymore after this summer.
It was difficult not to say anything in the months and weeks leading up to the pageant. Close friends and family knew where I was going but I didn’t say anything on social media. The excitement grew as the summer approached.
Finally, the week was here! Steph and I loaded up my van on a mid-August Tuesday and hit the highway. Armed with snacks, beverages, a fully charged iPod, a bedside commode, and a scavenger hunt list, we were ready for the open road. The drive to Erie, Pennsylvania, site of this year’s national pageant, was a raucous trip thanks to funny road signs, Chex mix, my “Steph Tunes” playlist, and an unexpected casino stop and win.
The pageant itself was uplifting and positive, as MWA always is. Our judging panel clicked right away and I enjoyed the experience of judging more than I thought I would. Every woman who came before us was passionate about a cause, and their enthusiasm was contagious and inspiring.
More than judging, I enjoyed being an observer during the pageant. When I was a titleholder, the MWA Pageant was my first exposure to being in a room surrounded by thirty other accomplished women who all happened to use wheelchairs. I left that week with women I could call “sisters,” my first peer support network of other wheelchair users who weren’t men. Watching this year’s titleholders develop their own sisterhood reminded me why I loved being a part of the national program.
It is humbling to know that I have played a small part in making it possible for other women to experience a program that helped me grow and develop as a leader. Many of the skills I use in my work and volunteer life were honed through my years with MWA. Being asked to help select the woman who will be the public face of the organization was an honor and responsibility I took seriously (even though we had TONS of fun and laughs during the week).
Each year, there are one or two women who really open up and come out of their shells during MWA. Steph and I have seen this many times during our years volunteering. Sometimes we can pick them out early in the week and sometimes we don’t notice it until we reflect back on the week during out travels home. The transformation is always exciting to watch. These women leave the week inspired to accomplish more than they thought they could, ready to challenge limitations and change their communities.
I always leave MWA a changed person too. This year I left with a heart full of joy and hope. Those two feelings have been in short supply in my life as I continue to slog through the process of acquiring a new accessible van and regaining independence. The pageant week gave me a much-needed boost of optimism and encouraged me to keep advocating through a bureaucratic process that is slower than molasses in January.
To the women of this year’s pageant – thank you for sharing your stories and convictions with us. You encouraged me more than you may realize. My will to keep fighting was replenished.
Only one of you went home with the title, (Sheri Melander-Smith from Minnesota is the new MWA 2018), but you are all winners. You will continue to make improvements in your neighborhoods, towns and states. Congratulations on your accomplishments so far. I look forward to seeing what great things you will do next!
Now it’s your turn! What did YOU do on your summer vacation?
Saturday a new Ms. Wheelchair New York was crowned – the 15th Ms. Wheelchair New York! It doesn’t seem like a year has passed since I wrote this post (my second post ever!) last September. As it always is each year, pageant day was an amazing day full of laughter, music, fashion, tears and love. This year we were honored to host the #RockItOnWheels fashion show featuring the designs of the amazingly talented and generous Timothy Westbrook. You may have seen him on season 12 of Project Runway if, unlike me, you have cable television and actually watch television other than PBS. Now that I know who he is, I will brag about him forever!
In case you don’t know, Ms. Wheelchair New York is an affiliate of the Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA) organization. MWA and the state affiliates are NOT beauty pageants. The organization exists to provide opportunities for women of achievement who use wheelchairs to educate and advocate for people with disabilities. Contestants are judged on their accomplishments, advocacy efforts, self-perception and communication skills.
I have been involved with Ms. Wheelchair New York since 2001, when I read an article about the late Nicki Ard, who was then the reigning Ms. Wheelchair America. More than one friend told me I should consider applying to MWA. I thought about it but never called until my best friend said she would nominate me herself if I continued to procrastinate.
I called. I applied. I was accepted as an Independent Delegate since New York did not have a state program. This meant I could attend MWA 2002 as Ms. Wheelchair New York 2001 (yes – I am a former titleholder) and would then become the State Coordinator for Ms. Wheelchair New York. As Coordinator, I would assume responsibility for holding annual events in my state to select future titleholders.
Throughout my life, there have been key moments I knew were critical as they were happening. These moments are turning points. Life is changed from this instant forward; like the day I learned I would be an exchange student, or the day I learned I would never walk again.
The minute I rolled into the contestant orientation the first night at MWA back in July 2001 was one of those moments. I knew my life would be forever divided into years before Ms. Wheelchair and years since Ms. Wheelchair. To say it was a week which changed my life simplifies it and does not capture the true impact on my world.
I returned to New York and started working on hosting my first pageant as State Coordinator. I kept going, serving as State Coordinator for eleven years. I was elected to the MWA Board of Directors for eight of those years and New York hosted the national pageant in 2005. I have volunteered as a judge at pageants in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Nebraska.
I never considered myself a “pageant person” but looking back at my experiences, it is easy to see how someone might get that impression of me. Including my first pageant as a contestant, I have attended a total of thirty state and national Ms. Wheelchair pageants since 2001.
My involvement with MWA and the New York program has never been about me. It has always been about the other women who participate. I have remained involved because I feel driven to encourage peer networks for other women with disabilities.
As a child, I had one close friend who also had a neuromuscular disease. Jen was my peer, the only person I felt truly understood what it was like to live with muscles which slowly stopped working over time. I did not know any adults with physical disabilities. The only adult with a visible mobility impairment I knew of who was living life as a “normal person” (that’s what I said back then) was world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. I never had an adult with a disability to serve as mentor until I was in college.
Today there are more mentoring programs for teens and young adults with disabilities than there were when I was in college. Thanks to changing opportunities brought about by the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities have more opportunities to access their community. This does not mean everyone has a peer network of other people with disabilities they can turn to.
I know this because Saturday someone at the pageant told me how good it was to be around other wheelchair users because he never sees another wheelchair user in his rural Adirondack town.
I know this because last year a contestant told me she had never been in a room with so many other wheelchair users before in her life. She was 34 years old.
I know this because until I joined the Ms. Wheelchair family, I never had a network of other strong, professional, optimistic, energetic women to turn to whenever I had a question, issue or concern. I never had a peer to call when I was facing discrimination from an employer. I never had a fellow “chick in a chair” who understood exactly how it felt and would cry with me when I fell for yet another man who told me he just couldn’t “handle the chair” when he broke up with me.
When I accepted the role of Ms. Wheelchair New York 2001, I knew I was making a commitment which would endure. I honored my commitment and continue to volunteer because I have witnessed the personal growth in the women who have participated in our state and national programs. I don’t have children, and will never be a mother. But the women who served as titleholders while I was Coordinator are “my gals.” I celebrate their accomplishments like a proud parent, knowing I played a small part in offering them an amazing opportunity which they may not have otherwise discovered. I cheer them on, brag about their news, and encourage them when they are facing challenges.
While Ms. Wheelchair New York has never been about me, Saturday I was struck with emotion during the fashion show as I considered my role in bringing this network to my home state. Our fifteen – FIFTEEN! – titleholders and the dozens of women who have participated in our annual pageants have joined a sisterhood I helped create. If I had not said yes and applied to MWA in 2001, there would not have been an event yesterday, or last year, or any year prior. Of course, someone else would have eventually started the program in New York. But then “my gals” wouldn’t be my friends, and my life would be bereft of the joy and strength they bring to my world. And “my gals” would not have had the opportunity to spend a year telling their stories, advocating for their platforms, attending MWA and making life-long friends with their fellow sister titleholders.
The ripples of our individual actions echo beyond what we can envision when we make simple movements. I am a stronger advocate because I have “sisters” in wheels alongside me. When I speak to elected representatives or business leaders, I speak for all of us, knowing we are relying on each other in our efforts to fight for equality. When I encourage a young woman to pursue her goals, I am offering her the peer support which has sustained me. When I listen to their stories of adversity and success, I am validating their struggles and reminding them they are not alone in their journey.
Saturday during the #RockItOnWheels fashion show, I watched Mariah, a young woman who is counting the months until she is old enough to participate in the pageant, dance and laugh as she wheeled across the stage. Her enthusiasm drew the loudest applause from the audience, who were captivated by her energy and presence. I got emotional as I watched her beaming from the stage, reveling in the moment. I realized I continue to remain involved in Ms. Wheelchair for Mariah and all the other young women who use wheelchairs.
We are paving the way for them to raise their own unique voices, to tell their own individual stories. We give them a platform and a microphone and watch them fly. It is a brilliant gift and I am blessed to have watched so many women soar and achieve great things.
Congratulations to all who participated in this year’s Ms. Wheelchair New York pageant: Theresa Mcintosh, Nancy Nydam, Yesenia Torres and the new Ms. Wheelchair New York 2016, Jessica De La Rosa. Welcome to the Ms. Wheelchair New York family. You are all winners and I look forward to watching all you accomplish!
I’ve written previously about my involvement with the Ms.Wheelchair America organization. I have had the privilege of watching women from across the country grow as advocates and challenge stereotypes. When I started blogging, I was excited to discover the current Ms. Wheelchair America, Sam Schroth, has a blog of her own called Never Sitting Still. We began to email and she accepted my invitation to write a guest post for my blog.
Sam is new to life with a disability, and has adapted to life on wheels with humility and humor. Rather than sitting in self-pity, she has chosen to seek guidance from others and continue to roll forward. I’ll let her tell you about her experiences in her own words.
WHAT A RIDE!
“Sam, what has your year as Ms. Wheelchair America 2015 been like so far?” Unsurprisingly, that’s a pretty common question. I mean, it sounds simple enough, right? A few short sentences should prove sufficient. But like so much in life, things aren’t always as they seem and it’s a question I often struggle to answer. I struggle to find a way to adequately portray my experiences, my thoughts, and my emotions about an opportunity I never imagined having. Hmmm, where to begin…
First things first, I’m a complete wheelchair newbie. I’m still in the early stages of my walking to wheeling transition and just hit my year and a half mark of being a “wheelhead” as a good paraplegic friend of mine calls it. If you don’t know my story, I’m 22 and a week after graduating from college (May 2013) I incurred a spinal cord injury in a freak event when a dead tree fell on me as I was standing in the front yard of a friend’s cabin. My life changed pretty drastically in that moment and I don’t think I’ve really stopped to slow down since then.
When you transition from walking to wheeling, you’re forced to look at the world in a way you never had before. You begin to realize how much you took for granted and how wrong so many of your perceptions were about the world you live in and the people you encounter. At least, that’s what I began to realize. That simple acknowledgement is what brought me to the Ms. Wheelchair America organization. I wanted to change those perceptions, those very perceptions I used to have myself.
I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Wisconsin 2014 in March 2014 and I was excited to travel to Long Beach, CA in August to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America 2015. In complete honesty, the last thing I expected was to come home from the competition with that coveted title. Instead, I went to Long Beach looking forward to meeting some really cool wheeling women who could teach me more about advocating and wheeling life and teach they did. That week is one I won’t soon forget with stimulating workshops, enjoyable sightseeing, and empowering women wheelers. It was so encouraging seeing and talking with other individuals who shared my passion of breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes. After having so many great conversations, you can probably imagine my shock when I, the youngest and newest wheeler of all the title holders, was announced in the top five and my even greater disbelief when I was crowned Ms. Wheelchair America 2015.
I can still remember that moment and all the feelings that coursed through me when my name was announced. I’m pretty sure shock was first, followed by my excitement of what the upcoming year would entail, but then the nerves hit. Me, they picked me, little newbie me, to advocate for the 54 million Americans living with disabilities. Now I don’t care who you are, those are some pretty big shoes, uh, tires to fill. But you know what? Those are some tires I’m so honored to be given the opportunity to make tracks with.
So what kind of tracks have I been making? Well, I guess it all depends on the week. My title has taken me on an exciting adventure to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to be apart of an internal broadcast on disabilities in the workplace at the headquarters of Comcast. I was a star at an amazing I CAN! Dancing with the stars recital where I danced with some awesome kids in Little Rock, Arkansas. I’ve spoken to 4-H clubs, been in parades, talked on the radio, thrown out the first pitch at a Miracle League baseball game, and was even a dignitary at a motorcycle rally to benefit Toys for Tots.
These tires, my tires, have been places I never could have imagined prior to my injury. These tires have challenged my outlook on life and the way others view their own lives. These tires have brought me face to face with people who never before realized all someone with a disability is capable of. These tires have allowed me to meet some of the most wonderful people.
These tires are tires I’m proud to be using and these tires aren’t going flat anytime soon.
Thank you Sam! If you would like to keep up with Sam, you can find her blog here or follow her on Facebook as Ms. Wheelchair America 2015.
Ten years ago, people in Albany started asking me if I knew Shameka. Despite what others may think, I don’t know everyone else who uses a wheelchair even if they live in the same region. It didn’t take me long to run into Shameka though. They don’t call it “Smallbany” without reason.
Shameka and I met when she volunteered for the Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant we held in Albany in 2005. She came every day to assist in the hospitality room. At the end of the week, she told me she was considering participating in the state pageant. I was thrilled to have her as a contestant and very excited to work with her when she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair New York 2006.
As a State Coordinator, I gave each titleholder the same advice, “Your year is what you make it.” Some titleholders chose to do activities in their community. Some titleholders traveled across the state. Some titleholders worked on national events held in their cities. Shameka actively volunteered throughout her year. She wanted to serve as an example to others and her way of demonstrating we all have gifts to give was to be an involved community participant. Shameka was at First Night, Tulip Fest, Alive at Five (an outdoor concert series), the Gubernatorial inauguration, and other events.
At the end of her year as titleholder, I asked her to consider remaining involved with the program as a mentor to other titleholders. Thankfully, she said yes and continued to help the program in many ways – as a judge, judge coordinator, volunteer recruiter and fundraiser. When I knew it was time for me to step down as coordinator there was only one person I could see taking on the role. Shameka has embraced the challenge and the program continues to grow under her direction.
More importantly, I have gained a wonderful friend along the way. Shameka is a positive, self-assured woman who resonates strength and dignity. She is a talented photographer and emerging writer. Shameka is a self-advocate who helps instill advocacy skills in others. I have been honored to watch her grow as a leader and it makes me proud to witness her accomplishments. I am not a mother, and will never be one, but when one of “my titleholders” does well, I am filled with wonder and awe to have have played a small part in their growth and success.
Thank you Shameka for continuing to advocate for our community. We need young leaders like you to keep pushing forward towards equality and inclusion. I am proud of you for all you have done, and grateful for the gift of your friendship. You always have a positive word of encouragement when I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. Here’s to many more years of laughter, and to being able to say, “Shameka? Yes – I know her well, and she’s my friend.”