If Bailey Ebaugh could send a message to girls with disabilities, she would tell them they can do anything they put their minds to.
She and dozens of other girls and young women from across the country were in Omaha most of the past week to prove just that as they competed in the first national Miss Amazing Pageant.
The pageant, which was established by Omaha teen Jordan Somer in 2007 as a local contest for individuals with mental or physical disabilities, has expanded to 25 states. More states are expected to become part of the Miss Amazing family in the coming year. Somer's goal is for all 50 states to have Miss Amazing Pageants.
Activities for the national event started with the arrival of contestants from 17 states on Wednesday. A talent show was held Friday, as well as the final competition for girls in the preteen (ages 10 to 12), junior teen (13 to 15) and teen (16 to 19) categories.
The older groups — junior miss (20 to 23), miss (24 to 27) and senior miss (28 to 38) — were in the spotlight Saturday evening.
Ebaugh, a 22-year-old from New Ross, Ind., was crowned national Miss Amazing in the junior miss category.
In the ready room, where the women underwent hair and makeup sessions before showtime, Ebaugh was excited but not unduly stressed. Her smile rarely faltered as she talked about why she entered the pageant in her home state. “I've always wanted to do a pageant but thought it was impossible,” she said.
Then a friend, a former Miss Indiana, told Ebaugh about the Miss Amazing program. Ebaugh decided to try it and was thrilled when she won her age group in the state contest.
Ebaugh, who was with her father, Mike Ebaugh, said she had a wonderful week in Omaha.
“It's fun, even if I don't win.”
She said she especially liked meeting the other contestants, including Lauren Williams of Hollandale, Miss.
Williams said she enjoyed the whole experience, from state to national competition, mostly because “it encourages people like me to be brave and confident.”
“I was sad before. Now I'm happy,” Williams said.
Erin Terrill of Hiawatha, Iowa, who participated in the senior miss division, said this was her first and last time at the pageant. At 38, she will be ineligible next year.
“It was another opportunity for me to do something different, a challenge,” she said. Terrill was the first runner-up in her division. “I've met a lot of really great people.”
Kimberly Barnes, the mother of Racheal Barnes, who competed in the miss division, had tears in her eyes when she explained what the pageant has meant to her daughter. “This is a new beginning for her, a wonderful experience,” said Barnes, of Petal, Miss. “It has built her self-confidence and acceptance of herself.
“As a mother of someone with special needs, it's a dream come true.”
State winners have attended events in their states, ridden in parades and visited schools.
The national pageant was held in a ballroom at the Ramada Plaza Hotel. The nearly full house of families, friends and supporters didn't hold back in cheering on their favorites. But every young woman received a rousing welcome.
Every participant received a crown, a trophy and the title of princess. The difficult decision Saturday of naming the Miss Amazings was left to judges Lily Sughroue, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities; Beverly Doyle, coordinator of special education at Creighton University; and Karen Rolf, an associate professor of social work at Grace Abbott School of Social Work.
The event would not have been successful without its volunteers, some of whom worked as escorts and pageant buddies for the contestants and others who worked behind the scenes, said Somer, now a junior at New York University and a recipient of Nickelodeon's NickTeen HALO Award.
She saw room for improvement, however. “I'm always striving to be the best.”
The contestants who were interviewed said they had the time of their lives.
“I just came to have a good old time, and I ended up winning” Bailey Ebaugh said.