Pageant helps girls look past their dis­abil­i­ties


EN­FIELD, Conn. — Be­fore she was crowned Na­tional Miss Amaz­ing, Vanessa Cleary never thought of her­self as a beauty pageant com­peti­tor.

Yet the way in which Vanessa told the story of her birth mother’s strug­gles in Gu­atemala to help her with her dis­abil­i­ties and the pos­i­tive im­pact her adop­tion had on her life helped Vanessa win over the judges last month at the Na­tional Miss Amaz­ing pageant in Chicago, where she took top hon­ors in the ju­nior teen divi­sion.

Next sum­mer, Vanessa, 15, will re­turn to the pageant to present the tiara to the new win­ner. In the mean­time, she said she’s look­ing for­ward to telling her friends at school about the pageant so they can par­tic­i­pate as well.

“I want ev­ery­one to have the ex­pe­ri­ence I had,” Vanessa said. “It was re­ally fun. I re­ally en­joyed it.”

Miss Amaz­ing is a pageant for girls and young women with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to the web­site mis­samaz­, in the 10 years since it be­gan, 1,700 girls and young women with dis­abil­i­ties have ben­e­fited from pageants held na­tion­wide.

“It’s not prim and prissy and the girls aren’t queens. They’re rep­re­sen­ta­tives,” said Mor­gan Packer-McCarthy, di­rec­tor of Miss Amaz­ing Con­necti­cut. “It’s a whole new cul­ture and a whole new as­pect of di­ver­sity.”

Miss Amaz­ing was started in Omaha, Neb., in 2007 by a teenage girl, Jor­dan Somer, who was a vol­un­teer for the Spe­cial Olympics. Since then, Miss Amaz­ing has ex­panded to more than 30 states, in­clud­ing Con­necti­cut, where Packer-McCarthy started the chap­ter three years ago.

The pageant is de­signed to help girls who par­tic­i­pate build sis­ter­hoods, de­velop life skills and in­crease vis­i­bil­ity for those in the dis­abled com­mu­nity.

Packer-McCarthy has younger twin sis­ters who both have hered­i­tary sen­sory neu­ropa­thy type 2, mean­ing they can’t feel their ex­trem­i­ties. One of the twins, Al­lana Packer-McCarthy, wanted to par­tic­i­pate in a pageant, but her an­kles were en­larged as a re­sult of her con­di­tion and she couldn’t fit into typ­i­cal pageant heels.

Packer-McCarthy, 19 at the time, took her sis­ter to the Miss Amaz­ing pageant in Mas­sachusetts. Af­ter the pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence both sis­ters had, Packer-McCarthy de­cided she had to bring the pageant to Con­necti­cut.

Miss Amaz­ing is run en­tirely by vol­un­teers. Par­tic­i­pants reg­is­ter by do­nat­ing five canned goods that will be given to the needy. Fundrais­ers pro­vide money for travel and dresses, and on the day of the pageant, girls can buy do­nated dresses for be­tween $10 and $30.

Par­tic­i­pants in Miss Amaz­ing are paired with a buddy who does not have a dis­abil­ity. This can ei­ther be some­one they know or a vol­un­teer they’re meet­ing for the first time. They then do crafts, go through ori­en­ta­tion and par­tic­i­pate in an in­ter­view — an op­por­tu­nity to talk about their pas­sions and prac­tice a life skill they oth­er­wise likely wouldn’t get a chance to try.

The main event is the stage per­for­mance, in which par­tic­i­pants get to show­case a tal­ent of their choice. When Mau­reen Cleary, Vanessa’s mother, first heard about Miss Amaz­ing, she thought the pageant would be a great op­por­tu­nity for Vanessa to show­case her tal­ent — pub­lic speak­ing. Vanessa wants to be a teacher at En­field High School, where she is about to en­ter her sopho­more year. She said she wants to teach other stu­dents who have dis­abil­i­ties like her.

Vanessa is hear­ing- and vi­sion-im­paired, and has had mul­ti­ple surg­eries for both. She also has at­ten­tion deficit dis­or­der and an in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity that makes read­ing com­pre­hen­sion dif­fi­cult. Despite this, she is very ac­tive, par­tic­i­pat­ing in Uni­fied Sports for stu­dents with and with­out dis­abil­i­ties, and danc­ing. Last year, Vanessa was tak­ing a teen leadership course, in which she found her pas­sion for pub­lic speak­ing.

Dur­ing Miss Amaz­ing, Vanessa spoke about her adop­tion. She re­called how her birth mother did not know the ex­tent of her dis­abil­i­ties and was not equipped to handle them. She said she plans to re­turn to Gu­atemala when she turns 18 to meet her bi­o­log­i­cal mother and sib­lings.

Packer-McCarthy said the pageant cre­ates an ex­tremely sup­port­ive so­cial en­vi­ron­ment that young women with dis­abil­i­ties are unlikely to get any­where else. She said this is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for dis­abled girls, who are more likely to be low-in­come and un­em­ployed. In 2014, dis­abled women made up 1.5 per­cent of the U.S. work­force, despite mak­ing up 4 per­cent of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Depart­ment of La­bor.

Packer-McCarthy said be­cause of the sup­port­ive na­ture of Miss Amaz­ing, she has seen girls like Vanessa open up. A speech pathol­o­gist for one of the par­tic­i­pants said she saw more growth in two weeks than she had seen in the pre­vi­ous years of work­ing with the girl.

Cleary said for Vanessa, her growth came most in her in­ter­ac­tions with her peers. Dur­ing the pageant, Vanessa made friends from all over the coun­try and con­tin­ues to keep in touch with them.


AMAZ­ING EX­PE­RI­ENCE: Mau­reen Cleary, left, shares a laugh with her adopted daugh­ter, Vanessa, who won this year’s Miss Amaz­ing pageant.

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