When you think about Las Vegas, it’s almost impossible not to think about pageantry. As Ms. Wheelchair Washington 2006 and longtime coordinator of the Washington state pageant, Tammy Stay knew all about pageantry when she moved just outside Vegas, to Henderson, Nev., in 2010. So you can imagine her confusion upon discovering that there was no Ms. Wheelchair Nevada competition.
Stay had coordinated the Washington competition for four years after winning the title in 2006 and knew firsthand what a big impact the pageant could have on the women who competed. She wasn’t about to let her unfamiliar surroundings or the unexpected loss of her job stop her from launching a Nevada version and helping other young women find the success she had.
Upon digging deeper, Stay discovered there had been a Ms. Wheelchair Nevada — just not since 1985. She got in touch with some of the previous winners and learned some of the pageant’s history. Lastly, she set out to find women who were interested. “After meeting some of the local girls, I decided to go ahead and start it,” she says. “I was excited to get the program started back up again.”
As a former skeptic herself, Stay knew one of her main tasks would be to disassociate the competition from some of the negative connotations women have about pageants. “Anything that has the word ‘pageant’ in it can lead people to kind of freak out, but then once they finally see the women out doing advocacy, they kind of get away from that,” she said.
For Stay, that meant educating people about how empowering the competition could be. “Using that title, it gives you a platform to go out and do something you’re passionate about,” she says. “The other part is the huge network of women that come out of (the nationwide competition) each year.”
“Not only do you create great relationships in your own state but after each state crowns their state title holder we all meet again at the nationals and catch up,” she says. “Each year you increase this network of women with disabilities from across the country. All of a sudden, you have connections with amazing women in chairs from all over the country.”
Ms. Wheelchair America, the parent organization, has been around since 1972 and now has more than 30 state affiliates, all run by volunteers.
To get the Nevada chapter up and running, Stay reached out to the community. “The area has been really responsive to it,” she says. “We got coverage in the local papers and in the news, and I never even got that up in Washington. I’ve been really excited to see us get the message out that it’s a different type of pageant.”
On Mar. 3, Stay’s vision came to fruition when four women competed in the 2012 Ms. Wheelchair Nevada Pageant. The winner, Rhoda Mills, is a perfect example of what the pageant is about. A T5-6 para, she is a mother of three who works full time and has a long history of community advocacy. “It really has been a great experience,” she says. “In just a short amount of time I’ve met a number of people who will have a lasting impact on my life. I hope I can pave the way for women who compete in the future.”
This story was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Life in Action magazine. You can access our digital archives here.