When the house lights lowered and the spotlight shone Saturday in Wichita South High School’s auditorium, each lady who walked on stage felt unstoppable. They showcased their talents – singing, dancing, a harmonica solo and one played on the violin – to an audience of a few hundred.
Later their evening gowns flowed with simple elegance and grace.
Each woman smiled. A few blew kisses. Many waved and twirled for the crowd.
Given the chance to speak on stage, Sarah Shaw summed up the reason for holding the beauty pageant.
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“I might have a disability,” she said, dressed in glittering black and silver. “But it’s not going to keep me from doing what I’m doing.”
Twenty-two girls and women with developmental disabilities were given a chance to shine Saturday during the Arc of Sedgwick County’s first Miss Unstoppable pageant. The event is the brainchild of Chelsea Chilcott, a 21-year-old Arc employee who wanted to give local disabled women a chance to exude the confidence and beauty that she herself felt as a beauty pageant queen.
The show – broken into an introduction, talent portion, evening gown competition and off-stage interview – featured women ranging in age from 12 to 60. All have Down syndrome, autism, learning delays or other disabilities.
“They have all been really excited,” Chilcott said during a short break at Saturday’s show. “A parent e-mailed me yesterday and said, ‘I hope you know for the entire last week, she (her daughter) has been running around with her hands in the air saying, “I’m unstoppable!” ’
“I hope they realize that they are accepted in our community and they have the opportunity” to be confident and beautiful, she continued. “It just needed to be given to them.”
Confident was how each woman appeared during the two-hour pageant. Dressed in a pink ruffled skirt, an enthusiastic Natalie Hund shimmied her shoulders to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” during the talent competition. She had the tell-tale signs of Down syndrome, but no fear in her wide smile.
A sweet-voiced Jordan Shay belted out “Three Little Birds,” while Rochelle Lorie, a contestant in the 36-plus age group, tapped her toes to “Footloose.” The audience clapped along.
During the evening gown portion of the competition, the ladies crossed the stage on the arms of escorts, who themselves were developmentally disabled. An electric wheelchair also aided Sandra Jacobs, who was later announced as the audience favorite of the competition. Her hot-pink dress fell in long ruffles around her unmoving feet. She grinned at the applause.
The oldest contestant Saturday, 60-year-old Janet Swesh, wore a rich orange cocktail gown paired with a white shrug. Unable to speak and learning disabled, she grinned and waved as she was presented to the crowd.
“Her parents, I guarantee it if they were here today, would have tears,” Arc program director Marty Rothwell said. “They never, ever dreamed that she could do something like this and that she would be in an evening gown showing people that it’s OK to be different.”
Like any competition, the pageant was not without mishaps. But a delay in tallying final scores gave contestants a few extra moments to show their charm.
An impromptu on-stage interview to fill the time led a shy Samantha Wells to admit: “I’m scared. Thanks to all you guys who made it. I love you.”
Meanwhile, Isabella Severn, wearing a blue ballgown, promised onlookers, “I will try as hard as I can to win this pageant.”
In the end, as in any traditional beauty competition, Saturday’s contestants gripped one another’s hands, eagerly awaiting announcement of their queen.
Koren Shafer stepped forward boldly to accept her title – Miss Unstoppable 2014 – when she heard her name called by the emcee. After a sparkling tiara was placed atop her head, she shouted “I love you!” and gave a two-handed beauty queen wave.
“(The) gals have the opportunity of a lifetime today,” Rothwell, of the Arc, said. He expects the pageant will become an annual event.
“It not only touches the girls, who for the first time in their lives have walked across the stage in an evening gown and been judged as peers, it also touches all the family members. They never believed this could be possible, ever.”