Having the opportunity to spend time with the people in the Best Buddies Organization was hands down the most rewarding thing I’ve done thus far as Miss Illinois USA. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but when I met Vanessa I fell instantly in love.
Vanessa is a sweet, beautiful and talented 17‐year‐old girl who suffers from a mental disability. Not only did I get to know about her likes, her dislikes, and her talents as a young woman, but I was also able to learn from her. Throughout the morning we chatted about this and that and played some games while she quizzed me on current events and the names of all the biggest stars. Vanessa knew every celebrity there ever was from John Stamos to the Jonas Brothers. However, it isn’t just her knowledge and memories I was able to learn from. I learned from her demeanor as well. The excitement filled her heart as she caught the eye of another Miss USA contestant. She gladly greeted each girl with a big smile and a warm hug, saying how pleased she was to be spending time with them. She seemed to know something about every state too, from the capitol, to the states’ sports team statistics. The girl is just brilliant!
As the day went on, some of the kids decided to show their talents up on the stage by singing to the crowd. Each performed in his or her unique way, but at the end, some of them chose to give brief talks. This was one of the most moving parts of the Best Buddies experience for me. One by one, they announced how blessed they feel, and how successful they’ve been even with their disabilities. They talked about how strongly they are against, and how hard they are working to stop … the “R” word. You know the one. Never ever again in my life will I use the “R” word as an insult. It simply isn’t something to be ashamed of. These kids have bigger hearts and a stronger will power than any people I have ever in my lifetime met. They see nothing but goodness in the world, and they want to spread it like dandelions to all the people who inspire them, care about them, and stand by them through thick and thin. They keep jobs, graduate from school, start relationships, and so much more. Having a mental disability doesn’t mean you cannot live as fulfilling a life as anyone else. It simply means you have to take challenges on a bit differently – and boy, do they.
The courage, the empowerment and the appreciation these kids showed me makes me so grateful to be in the position I’m in. They continued to say one after the other how happy they are to have had the chance to spend a day with the Miss USA contestants … but little do they know, I am the one who is thrilled that I got to spend the day with them. I wouldn’t trade those three hours for all the chocolate in Switzerland. Vanessa showed me how to stop stressing the little things and appreciate life for all its worth. She dreams to one day be a soap opera star, and I hope and pray her dreams come to life.
At the end of our time together, I hugged Vanessa tightly as I told her what a gem she had been to spend time with, and how it was something I will never forget. Sadly, I made the poor girl cry tears of joy, and she said some kind words back that made me cry too. We two emotional girls hugged each other with tears in our eyes. I wish so much we could be friends for life. Vanessa is my angel. I have never felt such wonderful things from someone I knew so briefly, and I hope I made as large a difference in her day as she did in mine.