Ms. Wheelchair KY seeks entries

ms-wheelchair-kentuckyI have an aunt who has been instrumental in an organization called Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky for years. I’d heard about it through the family grapevine on occasion but never really knew much about it. Then I started this blog.

Aunt Pat, or Pat O’Bryant to most people, asked me to help get the word out about the upcoming pageant in Louisville. So I looked into Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky to find out what it’s all about.

I found out that Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky is all about education, advocacy and opportunity. The organization gives women in wheelchairs a means to educate society about the achievements and needs of people with disabilities. It gives them a platform to advocate for change to improve the lives of people with disabilities. And it gives them the opportunity to branch out into the world.

I also found out that the pageant, which is not a beauty pageant, has a strong Northern Kentucky connection.

But first, Aunt Pat wants you to know some things:

  • She wants you to know that the organization needs contestants. Now.
  • She wants you to know that the application deadline for the pageant is Monday – but if you need more time, especially to get together the $400 fee that helps pay for the pageant, just let her know. “We will work with them,” she said.
  • She wants you to know that contestants should be US citizens aged 21 to 60 who have lived in Kentucky for at least six months and who use a wheelchair or cart for all of their mobility outside the home.
  • She wants you to know that contestants should be accomplished and articulate because the winner must be able to communicate with the general public, the business community and elected officials.

The Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky pageant will be held Nov. 5. The pageant venue recently changed; it is now Jefferson Community and Technical College at Broadway and Second St. in Louisville. The winner of the state pageant goes on to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America, which will be held Aug. 14-21 in Erie, Penn.

pat-obryant
Aunt Pat, also known as Pat O’Bryant, Kentucky state coordinator of the Ms. Wheelchair America Program

Aunt Pat knows a little about these competitions. While talking with her, I learned that her husband, a.k.a Uncle Tom, used to be the president of Ms. Wheelchair America. And then Aunt Pat was the executive director of the national organization some time after that, in addition to working as the Kentucky state coordinator.

“They’re my heroes,” Aunt Pat said of the contestants. “The things they overcome …[are] unbelievable.”

Now, about that Northern Kentucky connection: Robbin Head, of Burlington, lived in Louisville when she was 38 years old and suddenly found herself with a disability.

She was goofing around with her husband one day when he picked her up from behind in a playful bear hug and her vertebrae fractured. She eventually found out that she had severe osteoporosis and was told it was not a matter of if her vertebrae would fracture, but when. The injury left her paralyzed.

This woman – who had joined the military at 18, had married and lived all over the world – now needed a wheelchair to get around.

Three years after her injury, in 1998, a vocational rehabilitation counselor working with Head in Louisville suggested she enter the Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky pageant. It was the first year for the pageant after an independent delegate from Kentucky, Terri Cecil, won Ms. Wheelchair America and came home to start a state organization.

“The Ms. Wheelchair pageant is what really helped me discover and more understand the world of disability,” Head told me when we spoke on the phone recently.

Head didn’t win that year, but she entered again. She was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 1999 and went on to compete in Ms. Wheelchair America. While she didn’t place in the national competition, Head relished spending the week with so many other women in wheelchairs.

“It was probably one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever been to in all of my life,” she said. “It made you feel like you were really part of a community again and part of actually the real society because you didn’t feel like you were the only one sitting there in a wheelchair.”

robbin-head
Robbin Head, Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky 1999

After her Kentucky reign, Head, who moved to Northern Kentucky in 2000, served as the state organization’s president for six years. More recently, she’s in her sixth year as the pageant’s head judge. As you might expect, she speaks highly of the program and encourages women to participate.

“It’s a way to be in touch with not just being a woman in a wheelchair but a woman of the world,” Head said. “It makes you feel like you’re part of something more than just being yourself, that there’s a place that wants you as a woman or as a person with a disability to use your voice and to use your experience to help others.”

Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky strives to give voice to the needs of those with disabilities of all kinds, whether they are mental, physical or both, she said. The organization, she said, educates the public about special needs and “why we are different and yet very much the same as the able-bodied community.”

If you know a woman in a wheelchair who might be interested in this effort, please get them in touch with Aunt Pat. You can email her at patobryant@bellsouth.net. You can call her at 502-394-9160. You also can visit the Ms. Wheelchair Kentucky website to find out more. And if you think this is a great program and want to support it, Aunt Pat is always looking for sponsors.

Aunt Pat is not the type of person who needs anyone to speak for her, but I’ll go out on a limb here as her niece and say this: Aunt Pat thanks you.

 

Royal Prom ready to shine

September in Northern Kentucky means Oktoberfest celebrations, pumpkin festivals and football. Now a new tradition may be making its mark on the month: The Royal Prom.

The dining, dancing, partying extravaganza for people with disabilities aged 14 and older gets under way Friday at Crossroads church in Florence. In its third year, the Royal Prom seems to have become part of Northern Kentucky, said Brian Kremer, director of Northern Kentucky Capernaum, which organizes the event with local churches, businesses and organizations.

“It seems like everywhere I go people are talking about how much they love the prom or asking about next year’s prom,” Kremer said. “It’s amazing that this has taken root and is something people look forward to each year.”

Kremer likes what this says about Northern Kentucky. “We are serious about loving our friends [with disabilities] in this community,” he said.

That love will be on full display when 350 guests – a full house – converge on the spacious venue at Crossroads to celebrate together thanks to the work of nearly 700 volunteers. Kremer said the guests and volunteers “come from every corner of Northern Kentucky.”

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Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton greets guests at last year’s Royal Prom.

Andy Dalton returns

Much of the prom will be similar to years past, Kremer said, noting that many prom guests like consistency.

Kremer said organizers are “delighted and thrilled” to have Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton return for the second year to announce each guest for a walk down the red carpet. The red carpet starts the night on a high note as volunteers line up to cheer guests on their way into the prom.

Volunteer escorts will welcome guests and accompany them throughout the prom to help ensure everyone has a good time and stays safe. Guests will dine on meals provided by Chick-fil-A in Florence and Newport and dessert from Gigi’s Cupcakes in Florence. They’ll receive flowers – boutonnieres or wrist corsages – and will have the opportunity to hit the dance floor, play games and get their photo taken.

New this year

Some new features this year include a photo booth for more informal, fun photos and jugglers to entertain the crowd.

Also new this year will be the registration and pick-up processes. Guests will register at a tent in the parking lot before walking the red carpet. Registered guests should have received in the mail a wristband they are to wear at prom. The bands note dietary restrictions, allergies and other health information for their escorts to be aware of.

At registration, each guest’s driver will also receive a wristband with the guest’s name on it. The driver must present the wristband at pick-up to make sure everyone goes home with the right person. If drivers are sharing drop-off and pick-up duties, Kremer said, they can use cell phones to send photos of the wristbands to each other and those will be honored at pick-up.

Traffic officers will be new this year, as well, to make getting in and out of Crossroads easier.

Safety has always been a focus. A team of doctors, emergency medical technicians and nurses will wear scrubs so that they can be easily identified in case of a medical emergency. Also, qualified medical personnel will be available if anyone needs help in the restroom.

Volunteers working security will wear referee jerseys for easy identification. Many workers will have radios so that they can communicate easily about any needs or issues, Kremer said.

maddie-and-the-cow
The Chick-fil-A Cow dances at last year’s Royal Prom. According to Chick-fil-A social media posts, Cow looks forward to dancing again this year.

Eric Northrup is back too

Each prom features an uplifting faith message, and this year’s speaker will be Eric Northrup. Northrup is a rock star in this crowd. He started Northern Kentucky Capernaum in 2009 and was instrumental in starting the Royal Prom in 2014. He moved to Cincinnati last year to establish Capernaum there.

Capernaum is a nondenominational Christian ministry that reaches out to teens with disabilities to foster relationships and share the message of God’s love. It is a branch of Young Life, a national ministry in many area high schools. Capernaum organizes events throughout the year, offering Bible studies, monthly “club nights,” summer camps, and other outings.

Joining Capernaum in the prom effort are area churches, businesses and organizations. You can visit the Royal Prom’s website, where, if you scroll down on the home page, you can find a list of prom sponsors. A committee of ten to 15 people work throughout the year, devoting an incredible amount of time, energy, thought and sacrifice, Kremer said. “I’m so thankful for everybody on that committee,” he said. “To me they are heroes.”

Changing the culture

Kremer, as Northrup did before him, talks about changing the culture. So often, people with disabilities are isolated and not given the same opportunities as others, Kremer said. He talks about a society where people with disabilities are seen for the people they are on the inside. He talks about a society where people with disabilities are accepted and loved.

It’s only one night. … We want this to be just what our friends experience every day.

The Royal Prom creates such a night, but, Kremer said, “It’s only one night. … We want this to be just what our friends experience every day.”

While seeing the joy of the prom-goers is richly rewarding, some of the best stories, Kremer said, come from people working at the prom. “It really leaves its mark on our volunteers,” he said. “I encourage people to bring tissues because I guarantee you at some point there will be tears in your eyes.”

Organizers hope that the prom is opening people’s eyes to see more clearly the lives of people living with disabilities. “We get to impact the community too and help change the culture,” Kremer said. “There’s so much more to this than just a prom.”

Photos provided.

NKY group helps moms along special needs road

My family and I once found ourselves on the road from Louisville to Lexington in the midst of a snow storm. Flakes fell fast and thick and covered the painted lines that marked lanes and edges of asphalt. Wipers brushed snow off the windshield, and we looked out onto a landscape with no clearly defined road. Except for one clue: travelers before us left tracks in the snow. As the snow deepened around us, we slowly and carefully followed those tracks, grateful for their help in finding our way.

I think about that long-ago trip today, when, on this special needs journey, I’ve been fortunate to meet others who have gone before us through a storm. They’ve helped us figure out how to get an IEP, find respite services, apply for Medicaid, administer the ketogenic diet, obtain guardianship. The list goes on and grows with each passing year, and I am filled with thanks for those who leave tracks for us to follow, who share their advice and experience, who help us find our way.

Valerie Whisnant understands what I’m talking about. When her son, Zack, received his autism diagnosis more than a dozen years ago, someone introduced her to Mothers of Special Children of NKY, a group that’s all about helping moms of children with special needs find their way. Still, she didn’t know what to expect at the first meeting she attended.

“You’re scared to death to be there,” she told me, recalling those early, questioning days of a diagnosis when life is filled with uncertainty. “You don’t have any clue what you’re doing. I mean, it’s all brand new.”

Not to worry. The meeting was good, and Whisnant clicked with other moms. “I’ve been a part of it ever since,” she said. “I gained a lot of friends. I was part of something again. Zack was part of something.”

Now Whisnant is one of four officers of Mothers of Special Children of NKY, serving as the correspondence secretary. We talked recently about the group and its mission.

Any mom, any diagnosis

Mothers of Special Children of NKY welcomes any mom, grandmother or female guardian of a child with any diagnosis, Whisnant said. The group offers emotional support, especially to those just learning of their child’s diagnosis. Those can be difficult days when families may feel alone in their struggles, but MSC lets them know that others have been through similar challenges and understand what they’re facing.

The group offers practical support too, she said, as moms share experiences regarding resources and programs to help their children. The moms in the group have a wide range of experience – from those with young children learning about school services and applying for Medicaid to those with older children who are dealing with guardianship applications and transitioning to adulthood, Whisnant said. To provide targeted help, she said, the group connects moms whose children have similar diagnoses.

“There are a thousand journeys going on in one group,” Whisnant said of the situations members face. “There’s no road map, there’s no manual. It’s just us … it’s everybody helping each other with information.”

So it seems these moms do more than leave tracks in the snow for others to follow. They gather behind fellow travelers and help push them through the storm.

Traveling companions

MSC offers a few ways to join in on the journey:

  • Its webpage is mscnky.com. The page introduces visitors to the group and its officers and includes contact information.
  • A Yahoo group enables moms to connect with each other online. Here also the group makes announcements and keeps members informed about community events for people with special needs. To join, go to groups.yahoo.com, search for MothersofSpecialChildren and click on it. You will need a Yahoo email account.
  • A Facebook page, Mothers of Special Children of NKy, allows members of the closed group to ask questions and share information.
  • Members meet the second Thursday of each month for support dinners at Northern Kentucky restaurants. Locations are announced on the group’s Facebook page.

Whisnant said the group’s official membership on its database hovers around 50 as new people come and older ones go. The database tracks member residences, contact information and diagnoses so the group can connect new moms with members in similar situations to answer questions or share concerns.

The group’s Facebook page, though, has a lot more members, Whisnant said. Begun in 2013, the page had 129 members at last check. The dinners are smaller gatherings, with attendance ranging from three to more than a dozen. The group, which has existed for decades, used to have a formal meeting structure but found that the dinners attracted more members, Whisnant said.

“You can come and just listen,” she said. “Some want that. Others want to engage right away and want to share their experiences.”

Colleen Bracke began attending MSC meetings when her son Ryan was four weeks old. He’s now 29 and has Down Syndrome. Another son, Sammy, is 27, has spina bifida and is on the autism spectrum.

You can come and just listen. Some want that. Others want to engage right away and want to share their experiences.

“It was a huge life-saver for me,” said Bracke, noting that she’s not the type of person who asks for help. The support and information she received, along with the friendships she made, helped her cope with her family’s challenges, she said. “I know I cried on a lot of shoulders.”

Bracke also helped others. The group used to have a phone line, and for years it came into her house, she said. While she’s not as involved now that her sons are older, MSC’s impact has been long-lasting. “Some of the women I am closest to come from that group,” she said.

Over the years Whisnant has noticed how members cycle in and out of the group according to need. Also, as members gain experience, knowledge and a support system, their role in the group changes, she said. “You go from getting information to giving information.”

MSC is all about making a difference in lives – first your child’s, then other families’, Whisnant said. “If we can help any parent in any way, that’s what we’re there for.”

Showing the way. Like tracks before us in a snow storm.

As we forge ahead – whether our journeys take us through snow storms or the challenges of caring for someone with special needs – we leave hope along the road. Maybe without even realizing. As we follow the tracks left by those before us, we leave new marks. We keep the path fresh. We show others that the road does not end. The world does not end. We help others find their way.

New session for drama club open to teens of all abilities

Update: As of Oct. 6, this group will meet at the new time of 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.

I’ll never forget the first talent show my daughter performed in. She was maybe 11 years old when she stood on stage at epilepsy summer camp and recited a song she had learned in preschool, complete with finger movements, about a caterpillar who turned into a butterfly. To finish up her act, she turned a cartwheel.

The crowd went wild.

The crowd went wild for each act, and the performers beamed their pride and delight, as if they all were caterpillars turned to butterflies.

Ever since that talent show, I’ve been a fan of stage work for children with special needs. Now a program in Northern Kentucky brings the pride and delight of the performing arts to teens of all abilities. The program is called Dramakinetics – a word that names a method as well as an organization.

Dramakinetics, the method, uses movement, music and drama to encourage participants to express themselves creatively. While doing so, participants build confidence and friendships and learn new skills and information. Educator and religious sister Jannita Complo created Dramakinetics in 1974 for her doctoral dissertation at Wayne State University in Michigan. The program guides teachers in using the arts to teach academics and help students express themselves.

Dramakinetics, the organization, operates out of Cincinnati, offering performing arts activities to help children, teens and adults of all abilities reach their creative potential. The instructors work with schools and organizations and also offer instruction for home school students. Founder Pam Shooner, an educator and local performer, incorporated the non-profit organization in 2007.

In this video, Shooner talks about the program. “You can learn anything through Dramakinetics,” she says. “That’s why I believe in it.”

Earlier this year, Dramakinetics made its way across the Ohio River to offer a teen group called Creative Chaos. Instructors guided participants to create community productions infused with their particular interests. For instance, one session produced a play that included a queen, princesses, One Direction music and a villain. (Full disclosure: My daughter was in it, and it was brilliant!)

Dramakinetics hopes to grow in Northern Kentucky. Here’s a bit from the website: “This class will not only introduce the students to the various aspects of theater but also encourage them to have confidence in their creative ability and the courage to be themselves.  We are very excited to see what this group will put together!”

The next session starts Thursday. Here are the basics:

Ages: 13-20

Place: Stage One at First Church of Christ, 6080 Camp Ernst Rd., Burlington, KY 41005

Time: 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Duration: The ten-week session runs from Sept. 8 through Nov. 17.

Cost: $17 per class, $170 for the session. A $10-discount applies if the cost for the session is paid in full by the first class.

Register: Visit the Creative Chaos web page.

Contact: For more information, call Dramakinetics at 513-389-1721 or visit its website.