COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Kelsey Norris needs only one word to summarize her reaction to learning that she is the first candidate with an intellectual disability to qualify for the Miss Georgia Scholarship Competition in its 77-year history.
“Happiness,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, where 53 Miss Georgia candidates and 38 Miss Georgia’s Outstanding Teen candidates are vying this week for more than $70,000 in college scholarships.
The finals start Saturday at 6 p.m.
Kelsey, 18, has been diagnosed with autism and Rubinstein-Taybi Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes developmental delays. She is a rising senior and a straight-A student in special education at Veterans High School in the Houston County town of Kathleen. She lives in neighboring Bonaire with her single mother, Carol, who owns the Norris Consulting Group, which advises and writes grants for public agencies, nonprofit organizations and collaboratives.
KELSEY NORRIS’ PAGEANT BACKGROUND
Kelsey started competing in pageants when she was 10. She learned about the Miss Georgia competition through its Princess Program, which matches girls ages 5-12 with one of the Miss Georgia and Outstanding Teen candidates for mentoring during competition week. In 2016, she was paired with Miss Houston County’s Most Outstanding Teen Kelsey Hollis of Warner Robins, who won the Miss Georgia’s Most Outstanding Teen title that year.
That meant Kelsey could accompany Hollis to the national competition, where Kelsey won the award for raising the most money among that year’s princesses, more than $6,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network. Not only did Kelsey have fun, but she saw the positive impact she could make in her community and beyond through the Miss America Organization. So she was compelled to continue competing in pageants on her own.
“I like winning crowns,” she said.
And her mother likes what these competitions have done for Kelsey’s development as she perseveres through her disabilities. The pageants help improve her eye contact and other social skills, Carol told the L-E. They also provide motivation and opportunity for Kelsey to thrive in community service projects.
Carol appreciates the “enormous support and kindness” Kelsey receives from the Miss Georgia organization and candidates.
“They look after her, they mentor her, they encourage her,” she said. “You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
ADOPTED FROM RUSSIAN ORPHANAGE
Kelsey was 11 months old — underweight and unhealthy — when Carol met her at a Russian orphanage. She was “starving, had lice in her hair,” Carol said. “… She didn’t walk or talk.”
And yet, Carol still fell in love with Kelsey at first sight, then adopted her three months later.
“She was obviously very sick, very small,” Carol said, “but her bright eyes and determination, I mean, … she was just so full of life.”
That determination fueled Kelsey’s soaring spirit to rise above her disabilities.
“She’s so vivacious, … very, very social, very loving, very kind and compassionate,” Carol said. “I just couldn’t ask for a better daughter.”
SUCCESS IN MULTIPLE AREAS
Kelsey has won six medals, including five golds, at the Georgia Special Olympics in bowling, swimming and track (1,500-meter and 3,000-meter race walks).
During the past 10 years, Kelsey has volunteered more than 4,500 hours in community service projects. She has donated more than 3 tons of dog food to the Humane Society and more than 3,500 cans and boxes of food to Backpack Buddies. She also has written grant proposals generating more than $25,000 for nonprofit organizations, Carol said.
Kelsey has authored five children’s books. Copies of “Kelsey Goes to the Special Olympics” were donated to each public school system in Georgia.
Her message, Kelsey said, is “kindness, understanding, inclusion and acceptance” can help people with disabilities find ways to contribute to their community. She wants folks to “like me as a person.”
Kelsey is an advisory board member for the HALO Group, which provides vocational and life skills training for young adults with intellectual disabilities. She has raised approximately $3,000 for HALO the past three years by collecting $1 for every mile she runs, jogs or swims.
No wonder her social impact initiative for the Miss Georgia competition is called “Special Needs Means Special Abilities.” She will dance to jazz-funk music during the talent portion of the event.
The goal is for Kelsey to eventually live independently, Carol said, planning for her to attend one of Georgia’s nine colleges with inclusive postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
Kelsey hopes to become a police officer.
“I want to help kids not be scared,” she said.
Meanwhile, Kelsey and Carol are focused on enjoying Miss Georgia week.
“She’s going to have fun,” Kelsey said of her mother.
“Very proud of her,” Carol said.
And mama expects to cry when she sees her daughter on the Bill Heard Theatre stage, reflecting on how far Kelsey has come from that Russian orphanage.
“No hope for a better future — and look where she is now,” Carol said, “because of her own hard work and determination.”
Kelsey noted her mother has played a key role.
“She’s helped me get through a lot of things,” Kelsey said.
Miss Georgia Scholarship Organization board of trustees member Martez Favis told the L-E that Kelsey’s historic participation helps the Miss America Organization achieve its mission “to prepare women for the world and to prepare the world for women. And that’s all women, not just women who don’t have physical or mental disabilities. … So I think this is a step in the right direction.”
Kelsey’s historic participation also can benefit the other Miss Georgia candidates, Favis said.
He wants to them to “understand the importance of being kind, the importance of taking the time to get to know someone, no matter how they look, no matter where they come from, no matter how they feel about a certain (issue). It’s important we treat each other with love and respect.”
Favis added, “It’s our prayer and our hope that she’s not the last. So we’re looking forward to her being that trailblazer and others following in her footsteps.”