By Jason A. Smith
Sherrie Ferguson was nervous when winners were being announced at the eighth annual Mr. and Miss Henry County Pageant in McDonough recently. The Locust Grove resident was not expecting to hear her name called as the new Miss Special Henry County.
"It feels amazing, and I just love it," said Ferguson, 20. "I'm looking forward to meeting new people, and getting over my shyness."
Ferguson was one of four winners at the event Saturday. It was sponsored by People First of Henry County, and held at the Henry County Performing Arts Center (PAC).
Connie Dodgen, one of three directors of People First, said the pageant seeks to "promote fairness and equality for people with disabilities. What we do is, try to make sure that people see kids' abilities, rather than their disabilities," Dodgen said.
A celebratory atmosphere filled the PAC as 22 contestants -- four teenagers, and 18 adults -- took the stage in their best formal attire. Family members, and former pageant winners, lined the auditorium, cheering and clapping, for each participant, as the names were called.
Each contestant, according to Dodgen, not only had the opportunity to vie for a crown and a title, but to increase their sense of self-worth, in the process. She said the experience can be a life-changing one for all involved. "The biggest thing they get is, their self-esteem is humongously raised," she said. "Their personality comes out. We get to see ... what they could be, if they felt beautiful all the time."
During the pageant, short biographies of the contestants were read, for hundreds of people in attendance, by a pair of emcees -- former Miss Henry County Lyndsey Mills, and Jeff Cooper, Henry Medical Center's vice president and chief operating officer. Although pageants in other venues might highlight an individual's dreams of fame and fortune, many of Saturday's contestants voiced such goals as obtaining a driver's license, or having a place of their own.
"What they want out of life is what we take for granted," said Dodgen, while seemingly holding back tears.
Participants in the pageant have been involved in 70 appearances around the state over the past year, according to Dodgen. Along the way, she said, they have met such notable figures as comedian Jeff Foxworthy, numerous NASCAR drivers, and Sarah Palin, a former governor, and vice presidential candidate.
Paige Copeland, a Locust Grove resident who was Miss Special Henry County for 2009, took part in those events. Copeland, 38, said she felt "like a celebrity" while wearing her crown and sash, and offered a word of advice for her successor, Ferguson. "Have fun, and realize that we are God's queens, always," said Copeland.
One of Saturday's first winners was 14-year-old Rozalyn Miles, of McDonough, who was crowned Miss Teen Special Henry County. Like Ferguson, Miles was not expecting to win, and she, perhaps, overestimated the prize which came with her victory. "I'm looking forward to getting a million dollars, so I can buy a house for my family," Miles said with a smile.
Michael Lind, 16, danced on stage just before he was named Mr. Teen Special Henry County. When asked how he felt about his new title, the Union Grove High School 10th-grader had a simple answer. "I feel like a king," he said.
Adam Roll, 21, of Stockbridge, outlasted his adult, male competition to become Mr. Special Henry County. He said he was surprised by the win, but "feels great" about his accomplishment. "I don't win stuff that much," he said.
Trea Pipkin, an assistant district attorney in Henry County, served as a judge for Saturday's pageant. He said he was "thrilled" to be a part of the occasion. "The pageant has been such a wonderful thing for Henry County," Pipkin said. "There's just absolutely no way you can come to this event, and not be moved or touched by people who are overcoming insurmountable obstacles."
Another pageant judge was Shaun Birindelli, director of Speedway Children's Charities at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton. She said she was inspired by the courage of the contestants. "It's very exciting to see all of the contestants put themselves out there, and enjoy the day and enjoy the moment, and the camaraderie that they feel with each other," Birindelli said. "When you walk out of here, you feel good. You feel like you could do anything, because you watch what they do."