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20 compete for Mr. and Miss Special Henry title

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Twenty local special-needs residents will grab the spotlight today, during the Mr. and Miss Special Henry County and Mr. and Miss Teen Special Henry County pageants.

The seventh annual event begins at 4 p.m., at the Henry County Performing Arts Center, after a silent auction that begins at 3 p.m. Tickets for the pageants are $5 at the door. The performing arts center is located at 37 Lemon Street, McDonough.

Tina Mills, one of the event's organizers, said contestants will be judged on overall appearance, stage presence and personality.

The participants in the pageants' adult and teen categories will also have a chance to win the People's Choice Awards, which allow friends and family to vote for their favorite contestants. Each vote will cost $1, Mills said, and voters may cast as many ballots as they wish.

The pageant event is a fund-raiser sponsored by the nonprofit agency, People First of Henry County. The group promotes fairness and equality for disabled individuals. Proceeds from the pageants are used to finance year-round trips and public appearances for the four winners.

The experiences that the pageants provide to the participants make a visible difference in their demeanor, Mills said.

"It's amazing to watch them. Some of them carry themselves differently," she said.

Each year, the Mr. and Miss Special Henry County, and Mr. and Miss Teen Special Henry County, make appearances throughout the area, including places like Atlanta Motor Speedway, a Christmas banquet for Speedway Children's Charities, and the Christmas parades for the cities of McDonough and Hampton. Money raised from the pageants also helps finance social activities for special-needs individuals, Mills said, including bingo, Easter egg hunts, and fall festivals.

Connie Dodgen, director of People First of Henry County and also a pageant director, said the pageants have a positive impact on the winners.

"A lot of them start off really shy, but at the end of their reign we see their perky personalities," said Dodgen. "They're like different people at the end of the year. It really touches you."

Dodgen's daughter, Melissa, reigned as the first Miss Special Henry County, and Chris Lewis was the first Mr. Special Henry County.

"It's a really worthwhile thing for them," said Mills, whose daughter Kristi, 23, is the reigning Miss Special Henry County. "It's not just a pageant. It's something they'll carry with them the rest of their lives."

Doug Caswell is the reigning Mr. Special Henry County. The reigning Mr. and Miss Teen Special Henry County couple is Noah Murphy and Stevie Mueller.

The Henry County Board of Commissioners has also pledged its support for People First of Henry County, by proclaiming June 22-28 as Mr. and Miss Special Henry County Week. During its June 16 meeting, the commission presented a proclamation to last year's contest winners.