CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The purpose of pageantry is to promote self-confidence by putting the spotlight on exceptional young women. For young girls with disabilities, walking across a stage wearing a sash and a tiara means so much more.
“It showed me you can be anything you want to if you set your mind to it,” said Ginamarie Ferretti, 13, of Deptford Township, Gloucester County, one of the 13 contestants of the New Jersey Precious Gem Pageant for local girls ages 11 to 18 with disabilities.
The pageant, the first of its kind in the state, was held Saturday in the Middle Township Performing Arts Center in Cape May Court House as a fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network. It raised scholarship money for the contestants.
Faith “Grammy” Miller, a seasoned pageant director whose son and adult granddaughter have special needs, created the event. On Saturday, Miller said it had surpassed her expectations and she plans to make it an annual event opened to New Jersey preteens and teens with disabilities.
During the pageant, Miller was issued a proclamation by state Senate President Steve Sweeney honoring her for her service in creating the special event.
The contestants’ special needs included Down syndrome, high-functioning autism and behavioral anxiety. Each were paired up with a pageant mentor — a current or former titleholders of Miss New Jersey Education Foundation’s pageants — who stood by their side the entire time, from practices to talent and the walk-and-wave across the stage.
Contestant Chloe Joy Brynell, 11, was paired with Miss Eastern Shores Devon Vanderslice, an Ocean City resident and college student at West Chester University.
For the past few weeks, Vanderslice, 20, has gone to Brynell’s house to practice their song-and-dance routine. On Saturday night, they nailed it, but more importantly they had fun doing it.
“She was blowing kisses off the stage saying ‘I love you all,’” Vanderslice said as Brynell looked up at her beaming with pride. “They say I’m her mentor, but she’s taught me so much more.”
There were several winners Saturday night. Awards were given in three different age division and three overall winners, one of whom was self-taught baton twirler Isabella DalEssandro, who in pure pageant fashion covered her mouth with her hands and jumped up and down on the stage when her name was called.
“I won? I won!” the 15-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident gushed.
“It was a really fun experience, and I learned to just be me,” she said.
Contestant Kiley Hansen, 12, of Galloway Township, who takes acting classes and wants to be a forensic scientist, farmer and video game designer when she grows up, said she wasn’t nervous at all on stage.
“We all just did our best,” she said.
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