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The Little Wheelchair Who Could: My Journey to Becoming Ms. Wheelchair Florida

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“There are four chairs of advocacy. They are as follows….” These words rang true with me as I watched the President of Ms. Wheelchair America, Shelly Loose, talk about how advocacy is a growing and strengthening process. She emphasized that one who is passionate should never give up on what they are working towards. Then something dawned on me. I was sitting in this room with other Ms. Wheelchair America contestants because after two years of trying to win my state competition, I finally did it. I didn’t do it because I wanted to wear a pretty crown; that was a bonus. I did it because I wanted to have my message of change reach a larger audience.

I first participated in my state competition back in 2015 when I was just four years into my advocacy, with only an associated in Exceptional Student Education and a published book series. Now I know that seems like a lot, but gaining your state or national title is a huge responsibility and requires a person who is willing to reach out to all people with disabilities. To me, this meant that if I was to spread my message of acceptance, I needed to do it in more ways than just educating children.

This realization came to me after a conversation with my state coordinator, Shari Wilson, on the morning after my second loss where I placed first runner up with only a two-point difference between myself and the winner. I was very bummed and felt as if I wanted to quit trying to compete and just focus on the advocacy I was doing. However, Shari was not having it. “Girl, I better see you here next year. No ifs ands or buts. You will for sure have the crown if you expand your audience.” I just looked at her and smiled and said, “I’ll think about it.”

Many months went by without a thought of competing again. I began subconsciously accepting different forms of advocacy that were thrown in my direction — things like modeling for the Bold Beauty Project, writing articles for different online magazines and being a co-host on a radio show. I even remember talking to a fellow model I had met through the Bold Beauty Project. I told her I thought she should participate in the pageant and I would go cheer her on. She agreed to think about it, and I was overwhelmed with joy for her. I knew that even though I didn’t win my state competition the first two years, she would have a great chance of winning.

Coincidentally, that same night my former state coordinator, Shari, emailed me and asked me if I was going to participate this year because the deadline for applications was approaching. I told her “No way. I need to strengthen my advocacy because I don’t want to be a three-time loser. I want to win so I can spread my message and do the best I can to help the community.” Yet again, she was very persistent and did not quit until she had convinced me to compete in April.

After about 20 minutes I found myself filling out the same application I had filled out twice before. This time, I had mixed feelings. My desire to win was now 90 percent about advocacy and 10 percent about a pretty crown. I began to think this could really be my year. I had climbed the ladder for two previous years, getting second runner up in 2015 and first runner up in 2016. I was sure that 2017 was my year to win. Luckily, my mom and my then-boyfriend kept talking me down, telling me it wasn’t about winning, it was about advocacy. I eventually listened to their words and forgot about winning.

When April finally arrived two months later, the time had come to head to Tampa and participate in this magical event. I went with a smile on my face, and as I looked at each contestant I made predictions in my head of who was going to win. I never putting myself in the top three, because I was only there this time to have fun and to learn. I really had no clue what was about to happen 36 hours later. I was just myself the whole time. Even in my judging sessions, I answered every question truthfully and without trying to sound smarter than I am.

I believe this was a major factor in winning; I had done all the hard work without even a thought of participating again. I did it because I have a passion for being an advocate, and though there were lots of bumps along the way, I know just like the little engine that could, if I keep pushing forward and thinking “I can!” then I will get anywhere I want and need to go. So if you are reading this, please know “I think you can.”

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Originally published: November 5, 2017
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