Sturgeon Bay High School senior Kaitlyn Leonardson never expected to become as invested in Miss Amazing as she did – or as successful. In fact, her mother, Shawn Leonardson, was met with indifference when she first mentioned the pageant to Kaitlyn.
“It was all my mom’s idea,” Kaitlyn said. “She asked me how I felt about participating [in Miss Amazing], and I didn’t really know. But then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I signed you up.’”
Along with the initial nudge from Shawn came a challenge: Make one new friend. For Kaitlyn, who struggles with the physical, mental and social ramifications of a rare blood disease called fanconi anemia, this challenge seemed to be more easily said than done, especially with the added restriction: An animal couldn’t count as the one friend.
As an employee of The Farm, a devoted caretaker of three geckos and an all-around animal lover, this restriction would push Kaitlyn to step out of her comfort zone to interact with the other (human) Miss Amazing participants. (Kaitlyn did admit that her first new friend’s service dog certainly didn’t make things any more difficult.)
Not only did Kaitlyn succeed spectacularly, she came home from the statewide competition as Wisconsin’s new Miss Amazing Teen Queen.
Although the competition operates like a pageant, it is far from the world of Miss Congeniality, problematic swimsuit competitions and high-pressure interviews. Miss Amazing was established in 2007 by then-13-year-old Jordan Somer, who was a dedicated Special Olympics volunteer.
Recognizing that the particular stigmas and societal pressures that women with disabilities face exist at the intersection of being both female and disabled, Somer wanted to create a space where women with disabilities could be visible, unapologetic and part of a supportive sisterhood. Today, Miss Amazing programs exist in 30 states. In Wisconsin, 72 women and girls with disabilities, plus more than 200 volunteers, have participated in Miss Amazing programs since 2012.
Every Miss Amazing participant is paired with volunteers and guided through the process of creating either a talent act or a passion presentation to be performed in front of an audience, then judged. Kaitlyn used her love of animals and her knowledge about geckos to create a passion presentation for the judges. After practicing her presentation, which was about caring for geckos, she was ready to blow the audience away. However, during her presentation, something unexpected happened.
“I was presenting on stage,” Kaitlyn began. “It had all worked beforehand, but when I tried to use the clicker to change the slide, it went click, click, click and wasn’t working. I looked at the audience, and they looked at me.”
In a public-speaking nightmare that would unnerve anyone, Kaitlyn stayed cool and used humor to distract from the situation. Most importantly, she kept presenting despite the technological hiccup. Shawn said this was one moment of pride that stuck out from many.
“You can do more than you think you can do,” she reminded Kaitlyn afterward.
And, indeed, Kaitlyn walked away from the state Miss Amazing competition with a high honor: the Miss Amazing Teen Queen crown. After she was handed a bouquet, trophy and sash, the presenters whispered in Kaitlyn’s ear that she had won because she hadn’t yet registered the magnitude of her accomplishment.
“I just couldn’t figure out how to hold everything!” she recalled.
Although there is only one Wisconsin Miss Amazing Teen Queen crowned every year, every participant receives a crown and flowers.
“It’s nice that they are rewarded for participation,” Shawn said. “Some of the younger girls especially are the cutest things you’ll ever see. I remember one little girl who loved to tell jokes, and they were trying to get her off the stage, and she was enjoying herself so much she just kept going.”
Kaitlyn’s journey with Miss Amazing has not only helped boost her self-confidence and communication skills, but it has also exposed her to a community of women that she might not have been connected to otherwise.
Her advice for anyone who might be thinking about participating? Take the leap. “Just go try it because who knows?” she said. “It could be fun.”
And Kaitlyn’s journey with Miss Amazing is far from over. On Aug. 1, she headed to Chicago to represent Wisconsin in the National Miss Amazing competition.
Before the big day, she spoke about her journey at local churches, worked in partnership with Jimmy Johns and bagged groceries in order to cover expenses. Kaitlyn hopes to raise enough funds to cover travel and accommodations in Chicago, as well as other events that the reigning Miss Amazing Teen Queen is encouraged to attend throughout 2019.
Kaitlyn continues to accept and appreciate any donations. To follow her journey and/or donate, visit her Facebook page, Kaitlyn’s Hope for a Cure. Or, you may call Shawn Leonardson at 920.493.3168.