For the first time in St. Ignatius (SI) College Preparatory School’s history since its establishment in San Francisco in 1855, SI hosted an event, “Miss Unlimited Pageant,” to serve girls with disabilities last May of 2014.
This school has a history of serving the disability community. “We have an abundance of students who complete their service hours requirements with the disabled community,” said Windi Wahlert, Community Service Coordinator at the SI. “Students get to choose where they do their 100 Hour Service Requirement. Some of the agencies that serve the disabled where a good number of students volunteer are the Janet Pomeroy Recreation Center, Via West Services, and Full of Fun Camp.”
Also, John Ring, ’86, Director of Alumni Relations at the SI, is a board member at the Pomeroy Center for the past five years because of his cousin being a participant there in the past. SI students also volunteered with the pageant as part of their community service requirements this year.
SI’s Honors and AP Chemistry teacher, Michelle Wynn, was inspired by “Miss You Can Do It,” a HBO documentary about Abbey Curran, the first winner of the 2008 Iowa pageant with a disability (cerebral palsy) to compete in the Miss USA pageant. Curran also runs the annual national pageant in Illinois for girls ages 4 to 25.
“The idea that “everyone has gifts” and “everyone has something to offer” struck me profoundly in this film and I knew it was a message that needed to be shared. Those conversations (about the pageant idea) turned into weekly lunches with a group of young people (25 students from her honors chemistry classes) sharing ideas and coming together as a unified group that had a mission; to bring the value of that message to the Bay Area and create our own pageant to celebrate the beauty and spirit of girls with special needs.
It was then, that Miss Unlimited was born,” Wynn said, who has been passionate about working with people with disabilities ever since she volunteered for the Connecticut Special Olympics when she was a high school student. The meetings started in September and culminated in the pageant on May 10th for sixteen wonderful special needs girls. Also a recent recipient of the California Lloyd Ryland Outstanding High School Chemistry Teacher Award from the American Chemical Society, Wynn had to miss the award ceremony to attend this pageant since both events took place during the same day. “It was worth it,” she said, who also worked with co-director, Brandi DeCarli, to make this event happen.
Wynn, as the event’s director and founder, also assigned three students, Mara Sylvia, ’16, Katrina Keating, ’16, and Hart Ayoob, ’16, as leaders to help plan the event by recruiting people to help with the event. It took those students courage to interact with the disability community. For example, Katrina loved the film that Wynn showed to her, but she was not comfortable to help with the pageant at first since she “felt a little shy about working with people with disabilities,” at first, she said. However, she became more passionate about Miss Unlimited after realizing how this event has a strong impact on people with disabilities.
Katrina had to work on her confidence to recruit participants in the pageant, work with adults like Wynn to plan the event, and make announcements to other students who are working on the same project. “I was so excited about the pageant that I did not care that these things made me nervous before,” Katrina said. From being a leader, she commented, “I am unlimited too. I want to grow in confidence and have the courage to try new things, be passionate, feel joyful, and do anything I set my mind to.”
Another student, Mara, added that she had to organize students into separate committees, set up a timeline for deadlines, and recruited participants and supporters from the community. “The most important skill I learned was to be fearless in asking for support and gracious in receiving it,” Mara said, who has a goal to enter medicine and become a leader for an organization. “Upon seeing the girls’ reactions, I knew I wanted to help other girls, who are not often held to a high enough esteem, to feel beautiful and special.” Working with the participants made Mara realize that she can have a lot in common with them although they may be different from her.
This pageant had a very positive turnout, although it was SI’s first event of this kind, and was sponsored by Via West, Men’s Wearhouse, San Francisco Institute of Esthetics and Cosmetology, Neiman Marcus, British Motor Car, and Waterfront. Wynn also recruited seven male students, including John Gaul, ’14, to escort the girls on the red carpet. Paul Mitchell donated their services for all the hair and make-up, and Men’s Wearhouse donated tuxes for the male student escorts. Sephora provided gift bags for all the girls. Via West Camps donated free vacations for the participants.
San Francisco First Lady Anita Lee was one of the judges at the event, along with San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, ’76, Former Miss California Nicole Johnson, Meteorologist Christina Loren, KPIX Broadcaster Da Lin, and James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding program owner Sarah Meakin, and Former Miss California Nicole Michele.
At this pageant, everyone was a winner—taking home titles like “Miss Fearless” or “Miss Musical,” said Wynn, who wanted to give girls an opportunity to be celebrated for who they are by showing their true beauty, creativity, and inspiration aside from how the world views them. “My heart melted when I saw the girls onstage glowing with confidence and joy. When they came offstage, they were so elated that I knew the hard work had paid off 250 percent,” Katrina said. “Getting to know the warm-hearted, passionate, and fun-loving girls helped me to internalize the fact that disabilities do not define people. It also made me realize the need for more inclusion for people with disabilities- I want the world to see how beautiful these girls are, inside and out!” Wynn also added that the Mayor’s wife, Anita Lee, hopes to recruit more sponsors for the 2015 Miss Unlimited pageant at the SI next year. “True beauty lies in what we are able to achieve and offer to the world, and how we make other people feel,” DeCarli said. “Everyone has challenges, but recognizing our own beauty and potential is the ultimate gift.”
Another SI student, Korrie Taylor, ’17, commented that “meeting those girls was just an eye opening experience which really changed my life, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.”
For more information on the Miss Unlimited pageant, contact Michelle Wynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.