Wearing a flowing “Cinderella” blue, tea-length dress, Betsy Holtmeyer, 23, Washington, felt like a princess March 23 as a crown was placed on her head and a sash across her chest identifying her as “Miss Amazing Junior Miss Queen.”

She was still smiling with pride weeks later as she shared her experience in the 2013 Miss Amazing Missouri pageant with kindergarten students in Nikki Obermark’s class at Washington West.

Stephanie Littrell, 29, Marthasville, felt the same way, sharing her experience with her co-workers at Temco, a sheltered workshop in Marthasville. Even though she didn’t win in her age bracket (Senior Miss), she felt every bit a princess too.

“I thought it was fun,” Littrell commented. “Being with a whole bunch of girls with disabilities, meeting new people, learning to walk across the stage . . . ”

Miss Amazing is a pageant that “celebrates the abilities of girls and women with disabilities.” The purpose of the program, which has seven age categories for girls and women ages 5 to 35, is to “give girls and young women with disabilities the opportunity to build self-confidence in a supportive environment.”

Two other local girls and one woman competed in the 2013 competition.

Sisters Cassie, age 13, and Anna Kilmade, age 7, daughters of Jim and Donna Kilmade, Marthasville; and Shirley Cumberland-Ennis, who was in the Union/St. Clair area but has since moved away. Cumberland-Ennis competed in the Senior Miss category and was named Senior Miss Queen.

More Than a Pageant, a Food Drive Too

Founded by Jordan Somer in 2007 in her home state of Nebraska, Miss Amazing is open to girls and women who have “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Somer, who had competed in pageants since she was 7, notes on the Miss Amazing website, http://missamazingpageant.com, that being in pageants taught her “that success was not getting first place, but letting myself take control over the person I wanted to become.”

Later when she began volunteering with Special Oympics, she “thought it was truly amazing that the participants were able to let their abilities take center stage so that they could accomplish their goals.”

Somer brought the two experiences together in creating Miss Amazing, which is more than a pageant. It’s also a food drive.

The cost to participate in Miss Amazing is five cans of food, which are donated to the local community.

“To date, the Miss Amazing pageant has raised over $50,000 and 750 pounds of food for the Nebraska community,” Somer notes on the website.

Last year the pageant expanded beyond Nebraska. Miss Amazing was held in nearly a dozen states, including Missouri. Ellie Lorenzen, the reigning Miss Nebraska who has a brother born with disabilities and who was attending college at Lindenwood University, served as the director.

She was fairly new to pageants herself, having only competed in her first pageant at age 17, just something fun to do with friends, but Lorenzen said she wanted to share “all the positive aspects of pageants” with girls and women who have disabilites as a way to build them up.

“Our mission is to make these girls feel beautiful,” said Lorenzen.

Held at Logan Chiropractice College in Chesterfield, the first Miss Amazing Missouri pageant in 2012 drew almost 50 participants, and this year’s event included almost 100.

That’s exciting, said Lorenzen, because the event is really only reaching the St. Louis metro area right now.

“We haven’t even branched out into Kansas City or Jefferson City yet,” she remarked, noting there has been some talk of establishing east and west Missouri pageants.

Seven Age Categories, Four Areas to Compete

The seven age categories for Miss Amazing are:

Ages 5-9, Rising Star; Ages 10-12, Preteen; ages 13-15, Junior Teen; ages 16-19, Teen; ages 20-23, Junior Miss; ages 24-27, Miss; and ages 28-35, Senior Miss.

There are four areas of competition:

Interview, where the judges ask them a simple question about themselves, allowing the participants an opportunity to practice one-on-one communication skills;

Introduction, where the participants state their name, age and favorite things, which gives them experience with public speaking;

Evening wear, which gives each participant a chance to wear a fancy evening outfit as they are escorted across the stage, allowing them to showcase their confidence and poise; and

Talent showcase, where participants can perform a routine of their choice for up to two minutes, allowing them to take pride in their skills and also strive for improvement.

All of the participants receive a crown and trophy, and one overall winner, a “Queen,” is selected in each age category. She also receives a sash.

Part of what makes Miss Amazing so special for the participants is the relationship that they develop with their “buddies,” said Sharon Holtmeyer, Betsy’s mom, explaining that each participant is paired with a typical-developing college-age student for the day.

The buddies help the girls and women practice their walk across stage, take them to have their hair and makeup done, learn a group dance and go over tips for their interview, like making eye contact.

For the contestants, it’s a chance to be away from their moms and dads and have a little fun, said Holtmeyer.

“It’s a chance to be on their own a little,” she commented. “Betsy’s shy until she gets to know someone, but she and her buddy — those two bonded really well. She was having fun and enjoying herself.”

When it was Betsy’s turn at the microphone, she surprised her parents when she grabbed it, tapped it and confidently asked, “Is this thing on?”

“Her buddies, both years, really instilled that confidence in her,” said Sharon Holtmeyer. “They gave her words of encouragement and really talked her up.”

Lorenzen said hearing about the true friendships that form between buddies and contestants is heartwarming. So much of the pageant is though.

“I love hearing those success stories,” she said, “ . . . when parents come back and say how their daughter wasn’t afraid to speak in public . . . because she knows she’s amazing.

“I love seeing the girls’ reactions too.”

The pageant is an all-day event, running from noon to around 11 p.m.

There are breaks worked in and times for lunch and dinner (food is provided by local volunteers), but the participants are kept busy, said Sharon Holtmeyer.

The participants are escorted on stage by young men who also have a disability. Girls in the Rising Star category are escorted by their fathers.

The interview category included questions like “If you could go anywhere, where would you go and why?”

Littrell said she answered “Florida, because I love the ocean.” Holtmeyer said “Cancun, because I wanted to drink wine on the beach.”

Littrell, daughter of Dave and Lori Littrell, Marthasville, wore a purple dress (her prom dress) for the evening wear category.

Cassie Kilmade wore a yellow gown — her favorite color — because it made her feel like a princess. Her sister Anna’s dress was pink.

All of the girls agreed the Miss Amazing experience is just that — amazing.

“It made me feel like a star,” said Cassie Kilmade.

“Excited” is how Anna said she felt.

“It made me feel good about myself,” Littrell remarked.

“It made me feel grown up,” said Holtmeyer.

They all want to do it again next year, and they all can, except Betsy Holtmeyer, who will be limited to being a helper, since she has already won the queen title once.

As the Miss Amazing Junior Miss Queen, Betsy Holtmeyer and her family will head to Nebraska in late August to take part in the national Miss Amazing pageant.

The boxes of food items that were collected at the pageant as an entry fee were divided among the queens, with each one being allowed to select where she donated it.

Holtmeyer has donated her “three big boxes” of food to her church, Immaculate Conception in Augusta, which was conducting a food drive for the Marthasville and New Melle food pantries.