For the 10 delegates who graced the stage at Sunday’s third annual Miss Exceptional Long Island pageant at the CM Performing Arts Center in Oakdale, an evening of stardom and fanfare carried with it a much more lasting mission -- building self-confidence.
The pageant was founded in 2012 by Nikki Silva and Christine Box to allow participants with developmental and intellectual disabilities to showcase their talents and feel good about their accomplishments.
Silva, 20, a Weirdale, Florida resident by way of Coram, is all too familiar with the pageant circuit, having participated in several pageants and theatrical productions. Box’s 21-year-old daughter, Corina Lombardi, who was diagnosed with Autism/pervasive developmental delay, showcased the event’s purpose by entertaining the audience with her theatrical interpretation of “A Whole New World,” from Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Since its inception, the program has grown, starting from a pageant focused on Hamptons residents to an event for all of Long Island. This year even included a new addition, Mr. Exceptional.
“I want to give them a reason to feel like they are a star,” explained Silva, who has witnessed Lombardi develop throughout the Miss Exceptional Long Island experience. When the two met, Lombardi’s verbal skills were minimum.
“She didn’t say much,” Silva said. But in that time, much has changed. “Her voice has gone from little, to teeny tiny, to now — she sings big.”
The events presents awards and crowns each participant based on their unique personalities, and is a showcase for individual talents and interests. This year’s delegates, ranging from 9 to 63, were just as unique. Performances included everything from vocal renditions of contemporary pop songs to a special presentation of wildlife photographs. The photographs captured a gentle landscape and its playful inhabitants mimicking the sweet and loving nature of the artist, 29-year-old Moriches resident Lauren Bianco.
“It’s very therapeutic to me,” Bianco said of photography. “...You just feel happy and special.”
Feeling special is what the event is all about — shining the spotlight on different abilities, not disabilities.
“They just shine. They can be themselves. Nobody is judging them,” explains Miss Exceptional Long Island Vice President Jenn Keisner. Keisner’s daughter, 9-year-old Kaitlyn, is “intellectually deficit,” according to her mom. But the second-year Little Miss Exceptional delegate’s proficiencies — a beaming smile, warm personality and a passion for the stage -- outweigh any perceived deficiencies.
“She just thinks that the world is there to watch her and everybody needs to see the great things that she can do,” her mother explains while crediting the pageant for giving her an outlet. “It has given her unwritten permission to be herself.”
For information regarding Miss Exceptional Long Island, or to participate in next year’s event, visit www.missexceptionalli.org.