Road Trip Through California with Songee!

Songee Barker FamilyHi there, my name is Songee Barker and I am proud to be Miss Golden Valley 2018! I am excited to compete at Miss California this June. In preparation, I’ve been reflecting on the road that got me to this point! Growing up, my family and I used to go on road trips each summer, so I thought it would be fun to take a virtual road trip through the beautiful state of California. Here are some of my favorite places, I hope you enjoy! Follow along with the stars on the map to see where we’re off to!

Stop 1: Redwood National and State Parks – Spanning nearly 40 miles along the state and national parks here are home to some of the tallest trees in the world! It’s truly a humbling and surreal experience to visit and look up at the giant redwoods (here’s a photo with me in it for scale)!

pleasantonsignStop 2: Pleasanton, CA – This is where I was born! One of my favorite spots in town is the Meadowlark drive-through dairy, my family and I would stop by after a soccer or t-ball game to get soft serve ice cream! (here’s a photo with a giant ice cream for scale…kidding ☺)

Songee Barker Miss Golden ValleyStop 3: Mammoth Lakes – One of the best ski spots in the world! (I might be biased on that but after visiting Colorado this winter that claim checks out in my books!). For me to enjoy skiing takes a lot because I hate being cold so, if you’re looking for some great powder and a beautiful ski town be sure to check Mammoth out!

Stop 4: The Golden Valley  (aka the beautiful area I have the honor of representing this year!) – Located in California’s Central Valley, our state’s agricultural hub, where over 360 products are produced. The Golden Valley is sprouting with stunning groves and orchards that seem to go on as far as the eye can see! In addition to growing delicious produce and dairy, this area also grows some of the warmest and welcoming people I have ever met (this may be a personal bias, but it holds true!)

32327688_10211400245663280_1044742239177146368_nStop 5: Death Valley National Park – California is home to nine National Parks (I have been to five of them!). One of the most diverse and interesting is Death Valley, its Bad Water Basin is 282 ft below sea level, the lowest point in North America! Here you can find salt flats, mosaic rocks, sand dunes, and more! Just be sure to pack lots of water because the heat in Death Valley is intense!

Stop 6: Sandstone Peak – Sandstone Peak is the highest point in the Santa Monica Mountains. You can take the Mishe Mokwa Trail, a beautiful six-mile hike, to get to the top. Once you’re there be sure to take in the view of the ocean and snap some pictures! When you’re done hiking you can take a quick drive out to the coast and relax at some famous Malibu Beaches! There is also a race every year long the Malibu coastline, that my family and I ran last year!

196498_1567004936480_5754683_n (2)Stop 7: Newport Beach – Newport Beach, CA is a wonderful place to catch some waves! It’s also where I had my first job at the historic Lido Regency movie theater! If you’re in Newport consider taking a surf lesson or catching a movie!

Stop 8: Belmont Park – Located in San Diego (also where my Miss California roommate is from, Hi Miss San Diego!) Belmont Park is home to one of the oldest wooden roller coasters! When I was young my family used to vacation here with our cousins and I vividly remember just barely being tall enough to ride the roller coaster (warning Baby Songee pic!)!

I hope you enjoyed my quick tour of California, from the North to the South this is a magnificent State! I love exploring this beautiful state and hopefully, you’re inspired to explore too! Thank you for reading along, I’ll see you in Fresno this June!

All the Best,

Songee Barker

Miss Golden Valley 2018

Lauren Herring | Miss Clovis

Miss-Clovis-Lauren-HerringHi, I’m Lauren Herring, Miss Clovis 2018! Since 1924 the Miss California Organization has been pumping out scholarship queens and childhood dreams. Since 2017 I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from this organization. Going into the program I only had a small idea of what I was getting myself into. No one can really explain the look in a small child’s eyes when they see a girl with big hair and a sparkly crown on their head, and no one can really explain how it will make you feel.

The four points of the crown are service, scholarship, style, and success. If I had to add a fifth S, it would be strength, because boy oh boy do you have to be strong for this job. You don’t realize the extent of your importance until you’re expected to show up and just be yourself. That’s the most admirable thing about this Organization, you get a sash and a crown and a nation-wide platform, just for being yourself. Not only that, but you get to be yourself and be an advocate for whatever you want.

Another unexplainable perk you won’t understand until post-crowning is how much you can impact the people you meet. I learned from Uncle Ben (Spider-Man reference) that with great power comes great responsibility. The second you put on that crown, you become the most convincing person in the room. As Miss Clovis I wanted my platform to be all about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) STEM education and careers are important because these are the careers that dictate the way our world works. My platform also focuses on encouraging girls and young women to pursue STEM to create a greater female presence within the STEM industry.

Women are important and what they can’t explain to you before become a title holder is that it’s the kids that make you feel most important. Beyond my personal platform is the MAO official platform, the Children’s Miracle Network. If you ever lose hope in humanity just know there’s 80 + queens with 80 + people behind them working to make sure every child has proper medical treatment.

What they can explain to you, is that these moments are special, so take lots of pictures. They can tell you that you’re going to make a lot of friends and these friends will stay with you throughout your lifetime. They can tell you that the year is short, and while I’ve only been Miss Clovis a few short months, they’ve been the quickest few months of my life.

I can tell you that this is so much more than what I expected, but so much more in the best possible way.

Tour LA with Sarell | Miss Hollywood

My name is Sarell Diamond and I am your Miss Hollywood 2018! As a Los Angeles native, I thought it was only right that I take you on a tour of some of my favorites parts of LA—the place I’ve called home for the past 24 years! And of course, with a little help of some Hollywood magic, you’ll find out some facts about me: where I graduated (Fight On), my community service platform, and how excited I am to compete for Miss California this June!

Enjoy ☺

Sarell, Miss Hollywood 2018

Here’s a glimpse of Sophia’s journey with the Miss America Organization and her platform of Cultural Appreciation!

Alyssa Scofield | Miss San Fernando Valley

Alyssa Scofield Miss San Fernando ValleyMy name is Alyssa Scofield and I am Miss San Fernando Valley 2018! I am so excited to represent this beautiful city in Fresno at Miss California come June. Through my title, I am able to promote my platform Knowledge is Power which works to promote education reform state wide. I graduated with a degree in Elementary and Special Education from Arizona State University and you can probably guess, education reform has always been a passion of mine. After graduating from ASU, I took a job as a full-time 5th grade teacher in an incredibly low income school district. I had 35 students in one classroom. As you can imagine the classroom was overcrowded and the amount of classroom supplies I had access to were incredibly scarce so I had to purchase my own. The air conditioning would constantly break, the kids did not have access to a school psychiatrist, and in some cases there were more children in classrooms than there were desks. All of my students families fell far below the poverty line and in some cases some of my students were even homeless. Every day when I got home I would constantly think about what more I could do for these amazing children. That’s when I really started working with my platform. Through Knowledge is Power I am able to communicate the importance of education to a wide range of individuals from teachers to politicians. In Los Angeles I worked in the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti as the chairwoman of the Mayors Youth Council. This amazing program not only focused on Education Reform, but also helped students get more involved in their community.  Through my title as Miss San Fernando Valley I am able to continue my fight for equal education regardless of race, gender, or socio economic status.

alyssa-Scofield-TalentThe Miss America program has also helped me live out another one of my passions. Dance! I have been dancing since the age of three and haven’t stopped since.I have danced in the AFL, NFL, and the NBA.  I love performing because I love to see others smile! Through the Miss America organization I have gained over $3000 in scholarships that helped me continue my passion for education and dance. I am eternally grateful for everything this organization has given me and can’t wait to continue my service as a local title holder!

Currently I am working in Los Angeles as an in home Education Therapist and in my free time, I also work as a cycling instructor. Physical fitness and eating healthy are also very important to me so I love to stay healthy and active!
Thank you for following along as I work to obtain my dream job! See you in Fresno!

Meet Miss Tustin, Raena Ramirez

My name is Raena Ramirez and I am Miss Tustin 2018! I chose to give you all a look into who I am and my journey through the Miss California Organization. From my platform to traveling to Disneyland- you can learn about my job aspirations, my athletic career, and why I am beyond ecstatic to represent the city of Tustin!

Account Me In- Miss Culver City

Monica Stainer Miss Culver CityHello Everyone!! I am Monica Stainer and I am a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California working at a Big Four Accounting Firm. I am so excited to represent beautiful Culver City at Miss California this June!

As a little girl, I always knew I wanted to work in accounting or finance. I vividly remember waking up at 6:30am every morning, watching the Stock Market’s opening bell with my Dad, and naming off the companies in the S&P 500 and NASDAQ as the ticker symbols went by. There were definitely some interesting reactions when I was an elementary school girl saying that I wanted to be an accountant, rather than the typical response of a doctor, astronaut, or an actress; but I didn’t let that stop me. I wanted to prove that girls can be in finance too.

For Christmas, most teenagers ask for the newest iPhone, a car, or new clothes for school, but I asked for responsibility – I wanted my own credit card. I made a spreadsheet of my babysitting and tutoring earnings and proved to my parents that I could be responsible and pay for my meals and activities in-full every month. For Christmas that year, I was given a bag with an item that felt like a small piece of plastic. With extreme excitement, I opened the bag and found a $50 Gas Card. My parents told me to look for the lucky penny in the bag’s side pocket, which is a tradition my family engages in – and there it was – my own credit card! I quickly realized that this was not as glamorous as it seemed because I had to actively budget my spending, say “no” to costly luxuries, and meet payment deadlines, but I took pride in my responsibility (and haven’t missed a payment of the full balance to date!).Monica Stainer Miss Culver City

The following year, my childhood dreams started becoming a reality when I was accepted into the University of Southern California’s Leventhal School of Accounting as an Accounting Major, but my dreams were almost shattered when the reality of tuition started sinking in. Through the over $8,000 in scholarships I earned as Miss California’s Outstanding Teen, a rigorous academic course load and a lot of hard work, I was able to graduate from a five-year program (Accounting Degree with CPA Eligibility) in three-an-a-half years and was offered a full time job at a Big Four Accounting Firm.

Working in Corporate America, I’ve found that I still get interesting reactions when I tell people I’m an accountant – and now, that makes me proud. I am proud to be a woman in finance, proud to be auditing financial statements to validate that companies are reporting their financials accurately, proud to be participating in meetings with Corporate Controllers, CFOs, and CEOs, and most of all, proud of myself for achieving my goals and aiming higher for the future. I hope to continue breaking barriers and sharing my knowledge with younger generations just as my role models: Cathy Englebert, CEO of Deloitte, Mellody Hobson, President of Ariel Investments (and my Commencement Speaker at USC), and Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet/Google, have shared.

Monica Stainer Miss Culver CityBecause both of my parents had experience in the finance industry, I learned to budget, watch my spending, avoid debt, and become financially independent at an early age. Unfortunately, not everyone has these resources and personal finance courses are also not required in our California schools under the current 2018 Standards. My parents were (and still are) my heroes, especially when it comes to finance, and I hope that I can use my personal and professional experience to be a financial hero for our youth through my platform, Banking on Our Future.  

Along with my success thus far, I’ve learned that my dreams are constantly evolving. How can I use my knowledge and experience to give back to our community and our youth? What if I used “Miss” and “Corporate” interchangeably, rather than just being a part of Corporate America?

They say, “Money Makes the World Go Around” and as Miss Culver City and in my many years beyond the Miss America Organization I will continue to serve and promote financial literacy through my platform and organizations like Operation Hope’s Banking on Our Future program, so the next generation can understand how we keep this beautiful world of ours turning.

Thank you all so much for reading and following my journey of how I selected my platform through Scholarship, Success, Service, and always with Style 😉

With Love,

Monica Stainer

Miss Culver City 2018

From a black belt and nun chucks to a sash and crown!

At the young age of three, I was introduced to the sport Tae Kwon Do. My mom signed my sisters up and because I had to be just like them, she eventually signed me up too. I had no idea the dedication, hard work, and sweat it would take to achieve one of the highest levels of success in this sport- the black belt. I attended classes six days a week over 3 hours a day for 4 years when I became the youngest student in the studio to receive my black belt at just seven years old. I continued with this sport for a couple more years until I decided I wanted to branch out and try new things. I tried soccer, acting, guitar, and so many other activities. I was thirteen when my mom told me she entered me in a pageant. I had no idea what a pageant consisted of and my only knowledge came from Toddlers and Tiaras so to say I was worried was definitely an understatement.

Miss teen Simi Valley HayleyWhenever I look back at my first pageant ever it makes me smile because it was a great experience and changed my life forever, but it was a disaster. I was so nervous in my interview that I didn’t really answer any of the questions in full sentences. When asked about the best place to visit in my city as a tourist, I said, “probably frozen yogurt”. I forgot my heels, which meant I had to wear my sandals and to put the cherry on top, I wore my sister’s old prom dress that came above my ankles, a little longer than mid shin. I was so embarrassed and never wanted to see a stage again but after much time and thought, I decided I would compete again the next year. I practiced even more and worked even harder and became Miss Teen Simi Valley 2013.  

Miss Ventura County Hayley HuntI was introduced to the Miss America Organization in 2014 and loved that it wasn’t just a pageant but a scholarship opportunity.  If it weren’t for my mom signing me up in 2012, I would not be the person I am today. I have found so much confidence within myself, I am actually interested in politics, I love being on the stage, and so much more. I am grateful for the opportunity to be Miss Ventura County 2018 to use my voice and make a difference. I love being able to serve my community and share my platform Stand Up and Speak Out. I still whip out my nun chucks every now and then just to remember where I started. From breaking boards and wearing uniforms to hairspray and spray tans, I love that I can choose to be whoever I want to be.

 

Authentically Blue, Authentically You | Miss Los Angeles County

If you were offered the opportunity to go back and tell your younger self some answers and give guidance, would you?

A friend and I talk about this idea often, particularly pertaining to a certain subject. We go back and forth and weigh the pro’s and con’s and try to find the helpfulness in each.
I always land on the same answer.

No.

Caelin Nieto Miss Los Angeles CountyI am a firm believer in that whatever experience makes it way into our path whether good, bad, wonderful, terrible, and everything in between can have meaning if we transform it into something of value; something we can be proud of.

You’re probably wondering where this tangent is leading and I promise, I’m getting there.
This year will be my fourth journey to Fresno and the fourth time I have earned the honor of representing a part of this beautiful state. This time though feels like the very first time. There are moments that each one of us will experience during our lives that will change the trajectory forever. This is the story of mine.
In 2015, at 20 years old, two weeks before heading to compete at Miss California for the third time. I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, or Asperger’s. As of 2013 Asperger’s is now included in the Autism Spectrum, and is considered the highest functioning diagnosis within all ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) forms. I had faced anxiety, OCD, depression, and had “quirks” my entire life, (aka watching all three recently released Pirates of the Caribbean movies back-to-back on a loop from when I got home from school until I went to sleep. This continued for three years. I knew there was something different about me but after years of seeing therapists I was thrown into a slew of misdiagnoses from clinical depression to PTSD to extreme social anxiety. The list just went on. I knew deep down that there was more to my story. I knew with every new diagnosis that more was going on in my head than the categories I was being slumped into. I recognized some of the aspects were present, but many were not. I let time pass, and I continued to go through life.

While I was away at college, I really started noticing that I was struggling more and more to do what seemed like “the norm.” Life seemingly came so effortlessly to the people around me, but I felt like I was always living my life a few seconds behind. I struggled to connect, I struggled to feel like I had a place. I started going to a new therapist and she started leading me towards the only thing I’d ever really wanted: an answer. In this meeting she asked if a few specialists could come in and listen in and participate in our session and that it would be a little different. A group of four people came in. We talked, we talked, and we talked. I was asked to take written tests and a lot of the questions had to do with how I viewed the world around me, including how I viewed myself as well. I was convinced I was going to be told again I was just “very anxious and quirky.” They asked if they could excuse themselves from the room for a moment and discuss privately. When you’re waiting for answers and you have to wait it feels like you’re sitting for centuries. But I sat quietly staring at her painting on the wall that hung just a little too far to the left. To this day I still wonder if it was ever corrected.
When the specialists returned they delivered news to me that stopped my world for a moment and life was forever changed. They explained that I had Asperger’s Syndrome. I was initially overjoyed. It was the first time I felt it all kind of made sense. But then they told me that this condition is considered on the Autism Spectrum. I stopped dead in my tracks. How? How am I 20 and this is just being figured out? I thought they had to be mistaken. If this were true how could I communicate the way I do? How can I interact the way I do? They explained that although it is on the Spectrum, there are stark differences between both ends, and there are many things within that diagnosis that are tied to my high adaptability and ability to mirror people and conversations, but the experiences and way I navigate this world all point directly to one diagnosis.

I left angry. I left confused. I took all the information and handouts they gave me and stuffed them into my center console and convinced myself I’d never look again. I thought they were wrong. It was in my early moments that I now look back on and see that my lack of education lead to so many misconceptions, and common misunderstanding is something I look forward to changing.

I competed at Miss California that year but I knew I was not in my right mindset. I felt empty. It almost felt like myself had been taken out of me.

Caelin Nieto Miss Los Angeles CountyIt was about two months into my senior year of college and situations kept arising that I thought could be attributed to ASD did I open that center console. For the first time, I read through the crumpled abandoned paperwork with an open mind. Suddenly everything I read made sense. Every possible symptom was something that I experienced daily. Every. Single. Day.
Shortly after my realization my journey really began. I started cognitive behavioral therapy. and I chose to immerse myself in the ASD Community. I wanted to know it ALL. Every possible facet of the Spectrum. I was aware that with the great differences between both ends of the spectrum. I wanted to take the hard moments that I’ve lived every day for 20 years and advocate for all of us. Though my struggle will admittedly never be as hard on someone on the opposite functioning end of the spectrum, I can do my part in advocating for understanding and education. As far as the Spectrum goes, I know that my diagnosis is “easy” in comparison. I live independently, I am able to communicate, I am able to build relationships. But, that does not deter from the immense struggles and the constant bumper to bumper traffic in my brain.
As you can imagine, pageants were the furthest thing from my mind. I was still figuring out “me” for what felt like the first time. When friends and family would ask what I thought about ever competing again, I would say that if I could do it authentically, as wholly myself, then yes. But – it would take time to get there.

Last year, I sat in the audience at Miss California and had a very seldom quiet moment in my brain where I realized that this was something I wanted to do once more. I wanted to tell this story. I wanted to be vulnerable. I wanted to provide strength to those who felt different, who felt like they were the odd man out. I wanted to serve as a role model. I found the strength in the struggles to want to stand on a platform and proudly proclaim that Yes, I am different, but it doesn’t mean that I am any less capable of being Miss California.

Caelin Nieto Miss Los Angeles CountyI developed my Platform “Authentically Blue, Authentically You” on the merit of just that. I serve as an Autism Speaks Volunteer Advocacy Ambassador and I see first hand the beauty of this spectrum. The advances in the medical field, the advancements of occupational, physical, and speech therapies. There isn’t a cure, but the world is starting to open their hearts and minds to what the Spectrum actually is. Advocacy is one of the best ways to spread awareness and shine a light. My platform was also developed to have a universal element to it – for anyone who has ever felt different like they didn’t quite fit in like they aren’t good enough – this journey is for them as well. I’ve been.. I am that woman. I want to be the light to someone, be the role model that stood up and was relatable in the differences, not on a pedestal.

Is competing while on the Spectrum hard? Yes, but it was also hard when I didn’t know I was on the Spectrum. Will I have challenges during my year as a titleholder? Yes, but I had them and overcame them when I didn’t know my diagnosis. Will standing on a stage and sharing the interior of your heart be worth it (crown or not)? Absolutely. As cliché as it may sound if I could change one person’s mind about the intricacies of the spectrum, if I could make one person proud to march to the beat of their own drum, to be proud of their quirks, or even someone wanting to explore their own diagnoses’ further, then again, Yes. All of this will have been worth it.

Asante Sana, Africa | Miss Southland

“Only by giving are you able to receive more than you already have.”- Jim Rohn

 

Miss Southland Stephanie Behring The Wheelchair FoundationAt twenty-three years of age, I have witnessed more hardship and inaccessibility than most people will see in their lifetime. In 2001, my grandfather, Kenneth E. Behring, established The Wheelchair Foundation, a non-profit organization in Washington D.C. Although this organization is something that I have been exposed to since I was a young child, it is has touched me so deeply that I plan to one day take over for my father as the President of The Wheelchair Foundation. I feel honored and blessed to have been able to support their mission on over ten different mission trips in twelve different countries.

The Wheelchair Foundation has been my gateway to seeing these hardships firsthand in a myriad of different countries and has opened up my eyes to a world that many people tend to shove under the rug. Poverty, disease, malnutrition, armed conflict and lack of proper medical care are all major struggles and causes of disability in the developing world.

To date, The Wheelchair Foundation has delivered over 1,000,000 wheelchairs to over 156 different countries across the globe. It is estimated that at least one hundred million children, teens and adults worldwide need a wheelchair, but cannot afford one. Some international organizations state that the number could be as high as 6% of the population of developing countries.

Miss Southland Stephanie Behring The Wheelchair FoundationMany times, these individuals do not attend school and are less likely to be employed. Families with a disabled family member tend to struggle financially and are pushed further into poverty often resulting in abandonment. Already suffering from the pain, isolation and indignity of a physical disability, many of these people must endure further burdens, many are forced to live on the ground or to wait to be carried to meet their most basic of needs. For many of the disabled, a wheelchair is a critical source of mobility which aids independence and integration into society, including their ability to earn a livelihood. For disabled children, a wheelchair aids their cognitive and psychosocial development.

When I was 14, I had the unforgettable opportunity to travel to South Africa to deliver wheelchairs with my dad and some Rotarians. Though I had always felt it was my calling to serve others, it was this pivotal trip that transformed the course of my life and who I was as a Daughter of the King. Since my last trip to Africa, I had had dreams to return, but this time around I wanted to make the trip happen completely on my own. My father told me that the way in which I could return would be to fund two containers of wheelchairs- which seemed daunting at $16,500 per container.

3 years ago, that dream to return to Africa became not only a plan, but a mission. For three years, I went to Rotary Club after Rotary Club putting together presentations on The Wheelchair Foundation (TWF), spoke at local schools, and put together fundraisers hoping that people would aid me on this mission. It is still SO darn humbling to know that so many incredible individuals provided what they could to help me surpass my goal of 2 containers, in fact, these servant-hearted folks helped me raise $42,500 to bring with us to Africa!!!! (Forever saying thank you for this!)

My dream had come alive and before we knew it, we were contacting non-profits and organizations in Africa and booking our flights to Tanzania.

Stephanie Behring Miss Southland The Wheelchair FoundationWhen we arrived in Tanzania, we were sent on our way to the first wheelchair distribution at the Arusha District Commissioners Office. When we arrived, we were greeted with over 100 smiling faces of recipients, supporters, and family members. I’ll never forget pulling up to the distribution and seeing so much joy and gratitude in one sitting. We were escorted to a small, white table in front of all the recipients where a few members of the Tanzanian government introduced us and spoke about our non-profit and our mission. Before we began placing the recipients in the wheelchairs, my father and I were able to give speeches of our own (it was pretty nifty to have our own Swahili translator!)

The next day marked our second wheelchair distribution which took place in Monduli at the Monduli Rehabilitation Centre where we were once again greeted with about 75 smiling and joyous faces! At the rehab center, we were able to see the rehabilitation services provided by the Tanzanian government and were able to visit with a few of the children who were recovering from amputations, limb separation, prosthetic limb attachment, or facial surgeries.

Miss Southland Stephanie Behring The Wheelchair FoundationFollowing the tour of the rehab center, we began to set up the 50+ wheelchairs we had brought with us, most of them being “kanga wheelchairs,” which are specialized wheelchairs for those with severe deformities (I.E cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, Mermaid Syndrome). Most of our recipients on our distributions were children, and upon seeing all of them, I immediately wished that we had been able to provide more of the kanga wheelchairs (which is tough because they’re pricier at $650 per wheelchair versus $150 for the regular ones).

As always, it’s incredibly difficult to see the disabilities and struggles that plague a third world country, and this distribution was no exception.

One of the most heart-wrenching feelings is seeing the way in which many of these people live when they are immobile. Many recipients arrived on motorcycles by being strapped to the driver, crawled their way to the distribution, used crutches as transportation, were carried on the backs of their caretakers, and some even made make-shift wheelchairs that were falling apart piece by piece.

We saw so many children that had horrific birth defects- most prominently cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, hydrocephalus (brain swelling), Sirenomelia (Mermaid Syndrome where a baby is born with their legs sewn together), and congenital amputation (where a baby is born without limbs). A lot of these birth defects are due to lack of proper nutrition during pregnancy, excess fluoride in the water, AIDS, unsafe food and water, and poor prenatal care.

The remainder of our recipients were a mixture of elderly, people who had been paralyzed by car accidents, and people that had been involved in work accidents.

Stephanie Behring, Miss Southland, The Wheelchair FoundationOne of the most heartwarming stories from our distribution happened at our first distribution in Arusha. I had just placed this 8-year-old boy who had been paralyzed his entire life into a wheelchair when I asked the young girl next to him if she was his sister. She spoke English and told me she had been practicing so that she could thank us properly.

She took hold of both of my hands with tears in her eyes as she looked at me and said, “He is my best friend. We are best friends. We dreamed of the day that he could have his own wheelchair. I pushed him 35 miles for this. He is my best friend and now he is free to play on his own.”

You best bet I lost it at that moment.

One of the most incredible things I noticed in Africa was the immense sense of family and love that Africans have for one another. At these distributions you see family members who have taken care of the recipient for years, sometimes even decades. For example, at the Monduli Rehab Centre I met a recipient who was 104 (yes, 104) years old who had been taken care of by her son for over 40 years. Her son said that the government doesn’t provide healthcare and hospitals refused to give her a wheelchair because they didn’t believe it was necessary.

So for 40 years, he took care of his mother.

This blog post doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the joy and gratitude that these wheelchair distributions provide. For my readers who have never been on a wheelchair distribution, it is one of the most life-changing experiences. I don’t even know how to describe what it feels like to place someone in a wheelchair- to give them independence, hope, mobility, and a new lease on life by providing a simple seat and 4 wheels.

Nothing in my life has been as rewarding as not only being able to provide the funds for 2 containers of wheelchairs, but also to be able to distribute the wheelchairs with my family. I am forever grateful.

As I did when I was 14, I once again left my heart in Africa.