Courage, inspiration and awareness took center stage Feb. 8 at the Imperial Room at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet as winners were crowned in the 2019 Ms. Wheelchair Rhode Island competition.
Ashley Cabrita of Johnston was named the state’s new Ms. Wheelchair, while 11-year-old Destinee Marie Santos-Gleason of Lincoln was crowned the first-ever Jr. Miss Wheelchair.
Organized by 2018 Ms. Wheelchair honoree Tina Guenette Pedersen, the evening featured of a panel of judges, contestants, music and many words of inspiration. The Marvelous Marini Brothers, Kevin and Larry, provided musical entertainment.
“My journey as Ms. Wheelchair RI has influenced my life in such positive ways…Winning this title has taken me across this great state many times over,” said Pedersen, who also serves on the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities. “I have also had the opportunity to travel to many other states to spread my message along with learning from so many others – sharing ideas, changing minds and making change, fighting for inclusion for all. No one should miss out on making memories with family and friends, especially due to inaccessibility.”
Cabrita said she entered the competition at the urging of multiple people she describes as inspirations, including Mike Matracia, a Providence Police officer with multiple sclerosis. She met Matracia while attending a basketball game between Providence College and the University of Rhode Island.
“He introduced himself and told me I had an amazing personality and should consider applying for the competition,” she said.
“I pondered upon it for weeks,” she added. “Then, one day, I received a message from Tina Pedersen … asking me to call her. We clicked instantly and I truly felt two individuals who barely knew me wanted me to do this, they believed in me. Without hesitation, I filled out the application, and it just felt right. I’ve been an advocate for years and truly felt this was my time to make a difference.”
According to its website, the mission of the Ms. Wheelchair competition is to “provide an opportunity of achievement for women who happen to be wheelchair users to successfully educate and advocate for the more than 54 million Americans with disabilities.”
Cabrita said she has embraced that mission and hopes to help inspire others.
“I’ve been saying since I was crowned, this is surreal,” she said. “I’m so overjoyed and excited for this journey. I cannot wait to make a difference and excited to have such an amazing mentor in Tina and Junior Miss Wheelchair to join me on this journey.”
Santos-Gleason also said she hopes to make a difference.
“I want to make changes in the disabled community, beginning in the smallest state of Rhode Island,” she said. “I’m over the moon excited to be able to be a role model and make a difference.”
The judges for this year’s competition were Matricia; Christina Battista, a motivational speaker who earned a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling at Salve Regina University; and Leah M. Marini, who has been a special education teacher in Woonsocket for the past 20 years.
The evening’s master of ceremonies was Jason Brady, founder and CEO of Northern Command Studios and the host of “The Brady Report” podcast. Brady is a U.S. Army veteran.
Pedersen will continue to stay with the MS. Wheelchair organization as state coordinator.
“We plan to expand the reach of this program in years to come by not only highlighting women who use wheelchairs but men as well,” she said. “We also would like to have an advocate of the year competition at the same time to promote and include all members of the disabilities community.”
Others who took part in this year’s competition will also keep working to make a difference. Catherine Moretti has started a dance program for people in wheelchairs and others with disabilities at TLC Performing Arts in Cranston. Jennifer Lariviere Charbonneau will be working with the MS Dream Center to expand awareness.
The national Ms. Wheelchair competition started in 1972, and this year’s winner will be crowned in July in Arkansas. Cabrita will take part in the national contest.