Before she was crowned Miss Amazing National, 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 Miss Amazing National 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 missamazing2017.org, in the 10 years since it began, 1,700 girls and young women with disabilities have benefited from pageants that are now 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 at the time. Since then, Miss Amazing has expanded to over 30 states across the U.S. including Connecticut where Packer-McCarthy started the chapter three years ago.
The pageant is designed to help the 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.
"There was no excuse for me not to start the pageant in Connecticut," Packer-McCarthy said. Miss Amazing is run entirely by volunteers. Participants register by donating five canned goods that will be given to the needy. Fundraisers are held to raise 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 up with a buddy for the entirety of the experience, someone who does not have a disability. This can either be someone they know and choose or someone who volunteered and they are 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 on a Facebook page, 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 for her. 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.
In the class and 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 and less-competitive 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. Vanessa tended to talk more to adults in social settings, rather than girls her own age. During the pageant, Vanessa made several friends in her age group from all over the country and continues to keep in touch with them by phone.
For both Cleary and Vanessa, it wasn't about winning the pageant. They said it was about the opportunity for Vanessa to participate and feel supported.