Opinion: Not your average (Latina) princess

I’m not a princess. And I don’t think anyone who knows me well would disagree. However, you’d have a hard time convincing my two young sons otherwise. You see, their mother holds the title of Ms. Wheelchair Southern USA, and when I don my official sash and tiara for local events, they call me “Princess Mommy.”

I joke around that I’m going to be the Sandra Bullock of this pageant á la "Miss Congeniality" because of my background as a Special Agent, combined with the fact that I’m … a little rough around the edges.

— Sylvia Longmire

I won’t lie; I kind of like it. As a Latina woman growing up in South Florida, I certainly had plenty of opportunities to play the role of princess — a traditional quinceañera (which I gladly passed up in favor of a Sweet Sixteen cruise), prom, my wedding day, and numerous professional formal galas.

But as much as I enjoy dressing up, I always leaned more toward getting a little dirt under my nails. That’s probably why going into law enforcement when I went on active duty in the Air Force years ago was such a great fit.

Never in a million years would I have pictured myself where I am today — working very hard preparing to compete for the national title of Ms. Wheelchair USA on July 29 and 30 in Ohio. I joke around that I’m going to be the Sandra Bullock of this pageant á la "Miss Congeniality" because of my background as a Special Agent, combined with the fact that I’m … a little rough around the edges.

When I found out about the premise of this pageant for exceptional women with disabilities, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Ms. Wheelchair USA recognizes that all women, despite any disability, can be beautiful, feel glamorous and be self-confident.

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The pageant was founded 17 years ago as a state contest in northeast Ohio, and has grown in support and participation to include women from across the U.S. The program is presented by The Dane Foundation, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, which made me feel confident that this was a legitimate way to promote the image of women with disabilities as strong and independent.

I first came across the pageant while looking for ways to promote my own charity, The PreJax Foundation, which provides college scholarships to exceptional students who either have multiple sclerosis (MS) or a parent with MS. Immediately I was drawn to the fact that Ms. Wheelchair USA focuses so much on a contestant’s character and commitment to community service.

The biggest portion of the judging relies on personal interviews and the contestant’s presentation of her personal platform — the cause that she would be supporting and promoting for the year of her reign.

To even contemplate the opportunity to promote programs that support children of parents with disabilities, I first had to win a state or regional title. During the application-only process, I focused on my achievements as a service-disabled veteran, author and consultant, disability rights advocate, entrepreneur, world traveler, and single mother. Then word came in late April that I had been selected as Ms. Wheelchair Southern USA!

Little did I know the real work was about to begin. While I can only speak to my own experience as Ms. Wheelchair Southern USA, I think I can safely say that few people really understand how challenging it can be to prepare for a national pageant.

First, it’s critical to line up sponsors because travel to the pageant site, clothes, fees, gifts, etc., add up financially. Second, perfecting and memorizing a three-minute platform speech takes a LOT of practice. Third, it does your title no good to sit at home and wait for the pageant to roll around. It’s very important for state and regional titleholders to get out in their communities. Not only does it help promote the pageant and its message of inclusiveness for women with disabilities; it also helps promote local businesses as our supporters.

Admittedly my anxiety is building as I finish prepping my formal gowns, interview dresses, gifts, platform speech, and so many other things. But the opportunity to not only promote my passion for supporting children of parents with disabilities – and also meet women who look and live and overcome challenges just like me – is something even a reluctant princess like me can’t dismiss with a royal wave.