For the last six years, the Precious Gems Mentoring Program has given young girls with special needs from across New Jersey a chance to take center stage.
Saturday night at the Middle Towship Performing Arts Center, 20 girls performed their talents, danced in group numbers and wore evening gowns to the applause of an audience of family and friends. However, unlike other pageants or talent shows, every girl went home with a tiara, a trophy and scholarship money, as well as a big smile on their face.
“It’s like the Super Bowl for them,” said event choreographer Alyssa Sullivan.
Sullivan, 23, of Cape May Court House, not only volunteers to put on the show, but performed with her best friend and mentorship partner Kaitlin Manson, 22. The pair sang a duet Saturday night, but have also been dance class partners since they were children.
“Kaitlin has no fear, she loves to be on stage,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan, who is a current Miss Atlantic Shores and will be competing for the Miss New Jersey crown in June, said she invited Manson to participate in the mentorship program when she first heard about it.
The program matches up girls ages 7 and older with cognitive, behavioral or physical disabilities with mentors from the Miss New Jersey and Miss New Jersey Outstanding Teen programs.
Each year, the Precious Gems participate in a showcase that highlights their talents and on-stage confidence. The event is an all-day process for the girls and mentors, who start the day with rehearsals for the opening numbers and practicing their talents, as well as staging for two fashion runways and on-stage questions.
“You really can’t believe — these girls are so talented,” said Sullivan’s mother, Tina Bartleson. “Sometimes they are shy when they start out, but you see how confident the Gems become.”
Bartleson, who worked as a special education teacher for 21 years, has helped organize the event each year.
“There’s more need for inclusivity in all areas: schools, dance, other activities. The kids are getting involved and doing great things — every year it gets bigger and bigger,” Bartleson said.
The Precious Gems program was founded by Middle Township native Faith “Grammy” Miller, who had the idea to host a pageant-style show for young girls with special needs.
“It’s more of a family and community,” said Bartleson, who has seen many friendships develop through the program. “We bring these girls together where there are no differences — everyone is on stage together and they’re not being labeled.”
“These girls are so larger than life, the love and the respect they have for others is astounding,” Sullivan said. “They’re all very inspiring.”