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!