Island Lake woman takes part in Ms. Wheelchair Illinois America pageant
Jill Wesselhoff loved chatting with the contestants as their makeup was applied and hair was styled.
Wearing an emerald green dress, Wesselhoff donned formal wear and had to think on the fly to answer questions before judges.
"It's cool that it is a pageant — pretty much minus the swimsuit, which is great," she said.
But this was not a typical pageant. Contestants did not walk across the stage. They rolled in their wheelchairs.
The 31-year-old Island Lake resident proudly earned the title as first runner-up at the second annual Ms. Wheelchair Illinois America competition, where Wesselhoff said contestants are breaking the misconception of what a beauty pageant stands for.
"It doesn't have to be about your looks or what you are wearing. It is about the person. Just because we have wheels doesn't mean we are any less a part of the community," she said.
Wesselhoff was diagnosed at age 1 with a genetic neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy. Her mom, Terri, knew something was wrong when she never began to walk. She has used a motorized wheelchair since she was 3, adding, "I've been driving for a very long time."
Even though doctors said she would not live past age 3, Terri and Wesselhoff's father, Bill, encouraged her to do whatever she could while she took physical and occupational therapy. Wesselhoff adds she still sees the same therapists as when she was first diagnosed.
"I've had a wonderful support group, and that is what pushed me," she said. "I've always been blessed with being really secure because my parents made me that way. I have to maybe do things differently, but I've never had special treatment."
She took special education classes until third grade when she joined mainstream classes. A 1999 Wauconda High School graduate, she pursued her love of language and teaching children as she earned an associate degree in arts at McHenry Community College.
She tutored adult education classes and worked as a teacher's aide at Cotton Creek Elementary School. Wesselhoff continued at Northern Illinois University, where mom drove her to classes twice a week.
"All the good things I am, she taught me," she said. "She was happy that I was being productive and defying what that doctor said."
But education came to a halt when her mom got sick. During that time, Wesselhoff sought a hobby as an outlet and learned about bead jewelry. Her mom helped start her jewelry business when she would proudly show off necklaces, bracelets and earrings to co-workers.
Her mom died six years ago, but Wesselhoff has since sold jewelry at craft shows and makes and sells bridal jewelry on the Internet.
"I like that I can do this and my disability does not come into play. My studio has everything arranged. I don't need anyone to help me. I enjoy seeing what it comes out to be," she said.
Wesselhoff first learned about the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois pageant when she attended the Abilities Expo, an event designed for people with disabilities and their families. When she learned contestants were being accepted, she was hesitant.
"I'm not one to get on display. It's not that I'm shy, because I'm not. I'll talk to anybody. I don't have a problem with public speaking, but putting me on display? I'm a humble person," she said.
She entered because she saw the pageant as a chance to share stories with women who have disabilities.
"Being a woman, we all struggle with looking good. You want to look and be your best. It presents a bit of a challenge for us girls. It's great to go and meet other women and swap stories," she said. "I want to connect. It's not focusing on wanting the crown."
The pageant, which took place in March in Tinley Park, was made up of a formal interview. When asked what she expects to do within five years, Wesselhoff recalled saying she hopes to see celebrities wearing her jewelry on the red carpet.
Contestants also presented a two-minute speech on their platform. Wesselhoff focused on service.
Through school, Wesselhoff coordinated student group projects such as volunteering at senior homes and the Salvation Army. Since school, she has worked on smaller projects, such as making bracelets to raise money for cancer. But she hopes to do more through the Ms. Wheelchair America organization.
"I remembered people got to know me and didn't see the disability. The more you put yourself out there, the more people see you as they should," she said.
Wesselhoff said the pageant brought attention to women who have achieved so much. She added Ms. Wheelchair Illinois Kim Brown has competed internationally in wheelchair tennis and taught kindergarten. Brown will represent Illinois at the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant Aug. 6-12 in Providence, R.I.
Quick to share how much fun the pampering, conversation and winning first runner-up was, Wesselhoff is sure she will compete next year and hopes more women will join her.
"I encourage any woman to go for it. You will not be disappointed," she said. "It's not about the crown, although it was very pretty."
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