Kelsey Norris needs only one word to sum up her reaction to learning that she is the first contestant with a developmental disability to qualify for the Miss Georgia scholarship pageant in its 77-year history.
“Happiness,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, where 53 Miss Georgia contestants and 38 Miss Georgia’s Outstanding Teen contestants are vying for more than $70,000 in college scholarships this week. .
Finals start Saturday at 6 p.m.
Kelsey, 18, has been diagnosed with autism and Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes developmental delays. She is a senior high school student and a special education student at Kathleen City Veterans High School in Houston County. She lives in nearby Bonaire with her single mother, Carol, owner of the Norris Consulting Group, which advises and writes grants for public agencies, nonprofits and collaborations.
THE CONTEXT OF KELSEY NORRIS’ PAGEANT
Kelsey started competing in pageants when she was 10 years old. She learned about the Miss Georgia pageant through her Princess program, which pairs girls ages 5 to 12 with one of the Miss Georgia and Outstanding Teen contestants for mentorship during pageant week. In 2016, she was paired with Miss Houston County’s Most Outstanding Teenager Kelsey Hollis of Warner Robins, who won Miss Georgia’s Most Outstanding Teenager that year.
This meant Kelsey could accompany Hollis to the national pageant, where Kelsey won the prize for raising the most money among this year’s princesses, over $6,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network. Not only did Kelsey have fun, but she saw the positive impact she could have in her community and beyond because of the Miss America organization. She was therefore forced to continue to participate in competitions on her own.
“I love winning crowns,” she said.
And her mother loves what those competitions have done for Kelsey’s development as she perseveres despite her disabilities. Contests help improve her eye contact and other social skills, Carol told LE. They also provide motivation and an opportunity for Kelsey to thrive in community service projects.
Carol appreciates the “huge support and kindness” Kelsey receives from the Miss Georgia organization and contestants.
“They take care of her, they advise her, they encourage her,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
ADOPTED FROM RUSSIAN ORPHANAGE
Kelsey was 11 months old – underweight and in poor health – when Carol met her at a Russian orphanage. She was “starving, had lice in her hair,” Carol said. “…She didn’t walk or talk.”
And yet, Carol still fell in love with Kelsey at first sight, then adopted her three months later.
“She was obviously very sick, very small,” Carol said, “but her shining eyes and her determination, I mean, … she was so full of life.”
That determination fueled Kelsey’s soaring spirit to rise above her handicaps.
“She’s so lively, … very, very social, very loving, very kind and compassionate,” Carol said. “I just couldn’t ask for a better girl.”
SUCCESS IN SEVERAL AREAS
Kelsey won six medals, including five gold, at the Georgia Special Olympics in bowling, swimming and track and field (1,500 meters and 3,000 meters walk).
Over the past 10 years, Kelsey has volunteered over 4,500 hours on community service projects. She donated over 3 tons of dog food to the Humane Society and over 3,500 boxes and boxes of food to Backpack Buddies. She has also written grant proposals raising more than $25,000 for nonprofits, Carol said.
Kelsey is the author of five children’s books. Copies of “Kelsey Goes to the Special Olympics” were donated to every public school system in Georgia.
Its message, Kelsey said, is that “kindness, understanding, inclusion and acceptance” can help people with disabilities find ways to contribute to their community. She wants people to “like me as a person”.
Kelsey serves on the advisory board of the HALO Group, which provides vocational and life skills training to young adults with developmental disabilities. She has raised approximately $3,000 for HALO over the past three years by raising $1 for every mile she runs, jogs or swims.
No wonder her social impact initiative for the Miss Georgia pageant is called “Special Needs Means Special Abilities.” She will dance to jazz-funk music during the talent portion of the event.
The goal is for Kelsey to eventually live independently, Carol said, planning for her to attend one of nine colleges in Georgia that offer inclusive post-secondary programs for students with developmental disabilities.
Kelsey hopes to become a police officer.
“I want to help children not be afraid,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kelsey and Carol focus on Miss Georgia Week.
“She’s going to have fun,” Kelsey said of her mom.
“Very proud of her,” Carol said.
And mom expects to cry when she sees her daughter on stage at the Bill Heard Theater, reflecting on how far Kelsey has come from that Russian orphanage.
“No hope for a better future – and look where she is now,” Carol said, “because of her hard work and determination.”
Kelsey noted that her mother played a key role.
“She got me through a lot,” Kelsey said.
Martez Favis, board member of the Miss Georgia Scholarship Organization, told LE that Kelsey’s historic participation helps the Miss America organization achieve its mission “to prepare women for the world and prepare the world for women.” “. And that’s all women, not just women who don’t have a physical or mental disability. … So I think it’s a step in the right direction.
Kelsey’s historic participation can also benefit other Miss Georgia contestants, Favis said.
He wants them to “understand the importance of being nice, the importance of taking the time to get to know someone, no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, no matter what they’re feels about a certain (problem). It is important that we treat each other with love and respect.
Favis added: “It is our prayer and our hope that she will not be the last. So we look forward to her being that pioneer and others following in her footsteps.