Tonight they will name Miss Amazing.
Tonight at a pageant in Council Bluffs, whichever young woman makes the judges smile the most will claim the title.
Tonight, for the first time in Iowa, that young woman will win something that did not exist before now.
It did not exist because pageants typically reward the obvious.
And the obvious has genetic advantage. Outward beauty. God-given talent. Plenty of elbow grease that goes into it, too. And desire.
This pageant, Miss Amazing, seeks to level things a bit.
It's open to more ages, and the cost of admission is five cans of food. It's open to more talents. Its definition of beauty goes past skin and straight to the heart.
Miss Amazing is a pageant for girls and women with disabilities.
Started in Nebraska in 2007 by an Omaha teenager and young pageant regular as well as a Special Olympics volunteer, the program has spread to about two dozen states — including Iowa for the first time this year.
Tonight's Miss Amazing Pageant at Iowa Western Community College is about three amazing teenagers.
Two of the three are Millard North seniors who are finalizing college plans, juggling jobs and heavy class loads. They managed to plan this whole thing.
One is a Council Bluffs native who will be a contestant tonight.
Let's meet her first. Ashlie Hite.
See the almost 16-year-old in a gym earlier this week, bouncing a basketball, aiming for a taped-off square on the wall, she lobs the ball — boom! — and hits the wall during a regional Special Olympics competition.
This from the baby who entered the world with five holes in her heart and the extra chromosome that defines Down syndrome. Her early weeks were spent in a neonatal intensive care unit. She had heart surgery at 2 months. Back surgery at age 10.
But she reads. She rocks out to Justin Bieber. She has snagged runner-up titles in the Nebraska Miss Amazing Pageant, no microphone necessary. Ashlie's got confidence.
She's also got game.
Bounce-bounce-bounce goes the basketball.
Click-click-click go the paparazzi, composed of her father, her aunt, an uncle, all capturing this regional competition for the statewide Special Olympics.
The gym is filled with other Special Olympics contestants, other smitten parents who know that outside this gym and this event, there is little mainstream involvement for their children.
“I wish they truly did more for the kids,” says her mom, Heidi, watching from the bleachers with a big “Go Ashlie” cheering section. “I really wish there was SOMETHING.”
Enter Maddie Lorenzen of Omaha, the youngest of four Lorenzen kids. Big brother Jordan, now 27, has some autistic tendencies but no specific diagnosis.
“He's just our Jordan,” says Maddie.
Their big sister, Ellie, holds the Miss Nebraska USA title and goes to college and is in charge of Missouri's Miss Amazing Pageant.
Mother Sally Lorenzen has been a judge of the Nebraska Miss Amazing Pageant. And Maddie herself has been a volunteer.
So when another Jordan, Miss Amazing founder Jordan Somer, tapped Maddie to lead the Iowa pageant, well, she couldn't say no.
Maddie also couldn't do everything: book a place, line up contestants, get trophies and ribbons and T-shirts and a thousand other things. So Maddie tapped fellow Millard North Mustang Kayleigh Begley.
The two already juggle hard classes and big career plans. Maddie is University of Nebraska-Lincoln-bound and plans to study speech pathology. Kayleigh is aiming for Creighton and, eventually, law school.
They co-lead their school's DECA (marketing) club. There's National Honor Society and hobbies. Baton and the internationally known baton and pompon troupe, the Stepperettes. Both work part-time jobs. Maddie cares for a disabled teen after school. Kayleigh teaches baton.
The two seniors spent the summer and this school year organizing and planning what could be the biggest Miss Amazing yet.
Some 60 contestants, ages 4 to 49 and from all over Iowa, are planning to come.
Each will enjoy some free primping; hair and makeup is gratis. Each is paired up with a volunteer “buddy” who serves as a guide.
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Each will give a personal introduction, don “evening wear” and showcase a talent. Ashlie, for instance, will sing.
Judging criteria is this: “Whoever makes them smile the most. Whoever leaves the best impression.”
Everyone will get a trophy and a crown. The chosen Miss Amazing will get an extra crown and trophy, plus a sash.
Maddie, who has competed in a pageant herself, National American Miss, says pageants in general have a bad name they don't deserve.
“Everyone has a negative image ... because they think of 'Toddlers and Tiaras,'” she says.
Most pageants, she said, are confidence-builders.
In that regard, Miss Amazing is no different.
Ashlie will get to bring home ribbons, a trophy and a crown and show them to younger siblings Izayah and Taydem.
“It gives her more self-esteem, something to look forward to,” Ashlie's mom said. “She knows she's going to get all prettied up, to be treated like a princess for the day.”
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