0

People First director passes torch to new leader

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Kathy Jefcoats

kjefcoats@news-daily.com

This Saturday's event was to have marked the end of a pageant program specifically targeting the special needs community, but a last-minute reprieve has turned it more celebratory and less somber.

The passing of the torch from long-time pageant director, Connie Dodgen, to newcomer, Rhonda Towe, will still be bittersweet, however.

"I am sure I will cry -- a lot -- but deep down, I've gotta let it go, basically for my family," said Dodgen.

For the past eight years, teens and adults with special needs living on the south side of Atlanta have competed for titles of Mr. or Miss Special Needs Henry County. It is believed to be the only pageant of its kind in the country.

Dodgen, partnered with Joan Angelini and Tina Mills, has been a driving force behind the pageants. "I've been doing the pageant for eight years, but I've been a full-time volunteer for 33 years, really," said Dodgen. "Ever since Melissa was born."

Born in March 1978, Dodgen's daughter, Melissa, supported by her family, dived headfirst into everything Henry County had to offer a child with special needs, including Special Olympics. When the pageant to celebrate a person's ability -- and not disability -- began eight years ago, Connie and Melissa jumped on board.

"She loves it as much as I do, and our whole family is a huge supporter of the program," Dodgen said. But Dodgen's husband, Marshall, retired in 2007, and they have been eager to be free to travel at a moment's notice. So, she announced her own retirement, and plans began last year to have one final blowout to end the pageant program. That's when Towe stepped in.

"We needed to keep it going," she said. "We will do it as nice as we can. We're excited about it," said Towe, who has been a special education paraprofessional at Marshall Elementary School in Clayton County for seven years. Towe's daughter, Cara, 24, has special needs, but last year was her first exposure to the pageant.

"She had such a good time, I thought we'd give it a try," said Towe. "I just couldn't let it go."

Saturday's event is being held at The Beach, at the Clayton County International Park in Jonesboro, from 4 p.m., to 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, and include a dance, and a catered dinner from Shane's Barbecue. Patrons will view scenes from previous pageants, and 29 of the past 32 kings and queens will attend, Dodgen said.

Awards will be given to top volunteers, to the Family of the Year, and Business of the Year. Call Dodgen, at (770) 946-3673, for ticket information.

Preparations for the next pageant will start fresh, July 23, at McDonough Christian Church, on Jonesboro Road in McDonough. Towe said applications are open to anyone physically or mentally challenged, aged 13-19, for the teen category; and 20 and older, for adults.

The deadline for submission is May 12, with a mandatory orientation session May 15. Call Towe at (678) 986-4498, or e-mail her at RSTcrafty58@clear.net, for more information, or for an application.