Pageant focus is on inner beauty - Kathy Jefcoats

I am not a fan of beauty pageants, for most of the same reasons they are not popular with a lot of people - they exploit women and focus too much on appearances only. But I covered a pageant Saturday night where looks were not important at all and there wasn't a bathing suit in sight.

The second annual Mr. and Miss Special Henry County pageant was held at the Performing Arts Center in McDonough. All proceeds went to the Henry County Therapeutic Recreation Department's Circle of Friends.

When I was growing up, "special needs" were not used to describe people who were developmentally disabled. We called them mentally retarded because their mental development had been retarded or stopped for whatever reason.

But the phrase was shortened to retarded and used as a derogatory term used frequently in name-calling sessions. I was a little more sensitive to the word because my cousin, Theresa, was born mentally retarded. She doesn't have Down syndrome but she is not able to live on her own and take care of her own finances. We are about the same age so it was always in my mind that she wouldn't be able to marry and have kids and a normal life like I would.

I think it is a normal reaction, for people without special needs to feel sorry for those with special needs. I admit that, going into the pageant to cover it for the newspaper, I was prepared to feel bad for the 18 young men and women who got dressed up but who probably had no idea what was going on around them.

Boy was I wrong. The contestants sashayed out on the stage and learned quickly how to own the room, to play to the audience. With all the confidence of a Miss n or Mr. n America contestant, the young people strode into the spotlight, waved to the cheering spectators and talked about their lives.

Yes, they have lives. These aren't mindless vegetables sitting in a dark room for 24 hours a day waiting for the end to come so get that perception out of your head right away. I think what impressed me the most was how many of the contestants talked about wanting to help others. I was thinking, "That's what people say about you guys, that they want to help you," but most of the contestants were clearly caring, thoughtful people who have a real desire to help others in whatever way they can. For example, Brandy Walker is a volunteer for MDA and Dale Jones designed a stamp for Special Olympics in 1979 that is a collector's item 25 years later. Derek Cox is a volunteer at a respite care center for special needs children.

Several of the contestants clearly knew how to work the crowd. Outgoing Mr. Teen Special Henry County Scotty Betsill drew cheers when he breezed across the stage arm in arm with outgoing Miss Teen Special Henry County Kristi Mills and lifted his arms in the air, encouraging the audience to either clap louder or stand for him. Most chose to stand and cheer them both. Several of the guys walked onstage and pointed out at the audience, so like a celebrity you had to laugh and clap even louder. The audience was allowed to vote in the People's Choice Award so favorites were obvious from those winners n Rebecca Heaton, Bubba Bowman, Tasha Wall and Derek Cox.

I was covering the event for the newspaper but couldn't help but get caught up in the festivities. I clapped until my hands were chapped and laughed along with everyone else. I also cried, thinking how brave they all were to stand so vulnerable in front of supporters and strangers. I couldn't do it.

If you missed this second annual event, keep an eye out for next year's pageant n it is the only one of its kind in the whole country. You won't regret taking a couple hours of your Saturday night to get lost in the lives of people you think are less fortunate than you. You may even come away wondering if you are the one who is less fortunate. Until next year, contact the therapeutic recreation department to find out what you can do to help the special needs population in Henry County. You may learn something from them.

Kathy Jefcoats is a staff writer covering public safety in Henry County. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at kjefcoats@henryherald.com.