I started writing this blog on 8/31/2019 and I have been saving it for the right time. Now that I am officially moving into this new chapter and new role in my life, it feels like the right time to share this very special blog I’ve been holding on to.
When I didn’t win the title of Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee 2017 in 2016, I was crushed… but I had an army of women who told me I was enough. When I didn’t win the title of Ms. Wheelchair America 2019 at Nationals in 2018, I was crushed… but I was surrounded by an army of women that told me I was enough. My journey wasn’t over. It was really just the beginning. My life was meant to take a different route.
I’ve never been much of a “girls’ girl” but the women in the Ms. Wheelchair America organization changed that for me. They helped me realize that even though (in the moment) I felt like I failed because I didn’t accomplish my goal, I still had a purpose and I still had value. They have helped me realize that I hadn’t failed. They knew my journey wasn’t over before I even knew it. I was part of the “Rissa Effect” regardless of whether I had a new crown on my head or not.
In the Ms. Wheelchair America program, we frequently talk about “The Rissa Effect”. It is inspired by a young lady who holds a really special place in my heart. I personally felt “The Rissa Effect” the moment I met her and her mother (Pam) in person. You see… I was Rissa at one point. My mom was Pam… well, not ACTUALLY my mom…. but then again… there are days it feels like she is a mom to me too. What I mean is that my mom and I have been in their wheels/shoes as mother and daughter. My mom and I faced so many of the same struggles that they face now when I was Rissa’s age, except Rissa is wise beyond her years. When I was Rissa’s age, I just wanted people to accept and like me. I was lucky enough to have a few other amazing programs that thankfully helped me grow during that awkward phase of my life. Deep down, I was still a big personality stuck in a tiny girl who just wanted to be accepted for who she was. “The Rissa Effect” is symbolic and basically means that any woman who is choosing to go through the Ms. Wheelchair America experience is a role model for other women with disabilities. Regardless of what you choose to attach yourself to, the example we set is for the future generations… for young women like Rissa. It’s so much more than just a crown and sash. The competition, the role and the organization as a whole is so much bigger than ourselves, our mantras or what we do in what feels like a very, very short year as a titleholder. The opportunities and perspective I have personally gained through the program has molded me. Rissa IS the future. Every day since I met this sweet, fiery redhead, I remind myself that SHE is why I try to find small, new ways to make a difference in this world. I truly wish everyone could experience “The Rissa Effect”. It will change your life and perspective.
Going into the summer of 2018, I never thought beyond the National competition during the year leading up to it because I was so focused on that moment. I was focused on winning. I vividly remember the moment I left the stage. Rissa and her mom were right there reminding me that I still had value and that God’s plan was meant to lead me down a different path (even if I didn’t know where that path would really lead me). I vividly remember rambling on the phone to Pam about how I had failed. I’m grateful now that God’s plan was so much bigger than I realized it would be in the moment. I never imagined that only a year later I would be sitting next to the daughter of the founder of the Ms. Wheelchair America organization at a dinner while my husband prepared to emcee the event at the last minute. I never truly expected my life to lead me to the other side of the experience like it has… Actually (as I type this), I realize I that maybe there actually WAS something inside of me after that experience as a titleholder at 16 (and then again at 32) that deep down somehow just KNEW I would discover a way to stay involved in the program.
The opportunity to be an Independent Delegate Coordinator has been one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had. It has been stepping stone into preparing me to now become State Coordinator for Tennessee. Watching those ladies on stage showing the world what they’re made of and knowing that I’ve gotten to watch as the women grow and change the world, I can’t help but be grateful for the journey. Being a judge this year for Alabama’s program was never in my vision but I’m grateful for that extra layer of experience it has helped me gain. As I watch these ladies compete, I think sometimes I am more nervous for them than I was for myself when I went through the same process. I had always told my husband that if I ever had the chance to step in and help grow the Tennessee program that I would. I don’t know if I somehow just knew deep down but it is truly an honor to officially announce that I now have the opportunity to lead a non-profit organization that helps change lives. It’s my next stepping stone. Even as I type that sentence out, I am still trying to process that I am the one that has been trusted enough to step in and take on this role. These women, these programs and this entire experience so far has changed me and helped me grow in ways I can’t even fully express because I feel it so deeply in my core now. As I have finally been able to share with the world that I am taking on the State Coordinator role for the Ms. Wheelchair Tennessee organization, I realize now that I am exactly where I was MEANT TO BE all along and each of these experiences helped me get there. If y’all only knew how hard it has been for me to keep this excitement for the future so quiet while things have needed to transition for our state program, you’d wonder how I managed to do it as long as I have. This has been in the works for a little over a year and I have had to do a lot of vaguebooking along the way. Lol
There are women that will take and have taken this journey who will take a different path after Nationals. There are others who will dedicate their lives to the disability community. I realize now that part of my path in life is to root and cheer for ALL these ladies. It’s to be the encourager. It’s to remind them that they are capable and worthy of accomplishing anything they set their minds to. Through these ladies, I frequently see an earlier version of myself that I had to work hard to push past. Sometimes, I have to stop and remind myself that without the old me there wouldn’t be who I am today. There wouldn’t be the person who understands that I need to be there for them when these women feel like giving up. There wouldn’t be the version of me who is beaming on the sidelines like a proud mom as these women face their fears and choose to share their message in spite of all of that fear. There wouldn’t be the me that now truly sees and feels “The Rissa Effect” of it all every single day.
I fully believe that my journey was to help me realize that my life isn’t 100% defined by one single thing or moment: wheelchair, cancer, not winning, whatever… At the same time, my journey is only as good as what I make of it. Part of my journey is to help these women realize that they aren’t alone. In a society that tells these women that because of their circumstances and their disabilities that the world will treat them different, I am happy to remind them that different ISN’T a bad thing. I am proud to be a part of organizations that remind these women that they are an important part of the world around them. Part of my journey and purpose is defined by how I show others that they aren’t limited. Without the old version of me that exists deep down and understands the importance of having a cheerleader on your side, I don’t think I would have a husband sitting beside me through the long nights, paperwork and conversations of the future of the program, myself and these women. All of this happened because I was an earlier version of some of these women and because I wanted more for my own life. I still keep a part of that old version of myself in the back of my mind to remind myself of why I’m doing all of this. I hope I never, ever lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s so much more than a crown. It’s all part of “The Rissa Effect”.