Like many men, I’ve never been a pageant lover. But I drove over to North Oconee High School Feb. 27 for the “Big Hearts Pageant for Special People of Northeast Georgia.” And it was a worthwhile trip.
Fifty-one area students with developmental disabilities, including eight from Madison County, took the stage.
I had the chance to go backstage with my camera prior to the event. My bright flash popped repeatedly on wide grins, on boys and girls dressed in their tuxedos or evening dresses standing shoulder to shoulder for a snapshot. There was excitement and pride. I couldn’t take many steps without another request. “Can you get my picture?” And one-person shots quickly became photos of two, three and four.
The participants entered the packed auditorium through the back doors, walking down through the crowd. A couple were on crutches and some entered in wheelchairs. The pageant opened with two songs with every contestant on the stage. Several raised their arms in the high-energy moment. Several voices rose loudly above the others.
Later, each contestant had an escort walk with them to the podium, where they were asked questions by the two masters of ceremony. Some participants were quiet. Some were talkative and jubilant. Some broke into song. Madison County’s Hannah Baird walked out with her brother, Spencer. Hannah had clearly planned what she wanted to say, offering a touching list of thank yous to those important in her life. She seemed a natural on stage, happy and confident. I enjoyed how Madison County’s David McElroy walked on stage, grabbed the microphone and offered a country tune that got the crowd going. Others from Madison County who participated Saturday included Emilie Bedgood, Cierra Smith, Megan Weaver, Callie Moore, Karlee Tyner and Bryan Roach.
I was reminded that something clutches at you when you watch your child before a crowd. It’s a harder pull than I expected. That person you love intensely is now removed from you, staring back. It’s a tangible moment of separation. There are the rows of people, the backs of heads separating you from your child’s face. The task may be small, such as singing “Jesus loves me” in a church hall. But the moment doesn’t feel small.
To me, such times are not matters of success or failure, but a reminder of your wish for kindness and joy for your child in this world and how you’re going to be a bit helpless when they’re facing things on their own.
As I sat in that auditorium, I thought of how many people take for granted their blessed ignorance of the real difficulties many in that room face daily. I heard a woman holler out “little bit” to one contestant, a nickname my wife and I have also had for our little girl since she was an infant. I thought of how that woman in the crowd felt, watching her little girl, how her shout of “little bit” is full of deep meaning.
In public policy matters, we often speak in the abstract of children and adults with developmental disabilities, but they are anything but abstractions. They are right here with us. They hold the mix of struggles, sadness, smiles and intense love, both from them and for them. They are innocent beyond childhood.
We should all want kindness and joy for them. And the pageant was a really good way to show them that. Likewise, the event was held to raise money for an annual summer camp for Extra Special People. And funds are needed to keep the camp going.
“There is the possibility that the one-week summer residential camp will not be held this summer, due to budget constraints,” said Madison County special education director Joan Baird, Hannah Baird’s mother.
But Baird said the ESP event was about more than fund-raising.
“Even though the money raised by the pageant is very important for ESP Camp expenses, the pageant is also important to show what the children and young people with disabilities can do rather than what they can’t do,” she said.
Beyond that, it’s a good time, too.
“When I asked Hannah what she likes about the pageant she said, ‘being on stage under the lights and being with all my friends.’”
If you are interested in learning more about Extra Special People of Northeast Georgia, or if you want to donate to the organization, visit extraspecialpeople.com.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Thanks for a wonderful story Zach. It's nice to read, and nicer still that you're helping remind everyone that, there but for the grace of God, go I. (Or, if you don't believe in God, then you've won the lottery of life if you have no such disabilities.)
We all have many things that are special about us, and only us, and so do people affected such as these children (who do grow into adults). We all want to be recognized for what we try to contribute to our loved ones, our lives, and most importantly, the world.
Too much value, too often, is placed on "popular" physical beauty and "politically correct" opinions. It's nice to be reminded that we all have the ability to be unique, special, positive influences on mankind. We need to learn to use it towards that purpose, and enjoy it as much as these children did and do.
Thank you Zach for a wonderful story. My husband and I have had the pleasure in the past years to spend time with many of the children you have named and many others at his "special needs fishing tournament". They are such a delight to be around. It brings a smile to my face to read about them again. They are truly "Extra Special People". We could all learn from them.