SUMMERVILLE — After competing in her first ever pageant, South Carolina’s Ms. Wheelchair USA has returned to Summerville with plans to advocate more for mental health.
“I have never felt more empowered or encouraged,” Ashley Lawrence said.
With the help of her sister, Teresa Clark, and some support from the Summerville community, Lawrence traveled to Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, south of Cleveland to represent South Carolina this summer as she participated in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant.
The event is a national pageant centered on women who require the use of a wheelchair. Organizers said it’s one of two pageant competitions dedicated to women with mobility impairing disabilities.
During this year’s competition, Lawrence made it to the top five. She competed against 10 other finalists.
“I was very surprised I made it that far,” she said. “It was just so overwhelming.”
Lawrence said she believes the passion she had for her platform is what helped her stand out. It was centered on mental health and why accessibility matters.
It was inspired by her own mental health journey and her struggle to find mental health support that was both affordable and accessible.
About three years ago, Lawrence began using a wheelchair for mobility after an injury permanently damaged nerves in her spine. The injury caused her to lose the use of her right leg.
She also manages chronic anxiety. Because she needed to use a wheelchair, she said, she had to find a new therapist since she was unable to get into her previous therapist’s office.
She eventually was able to find one. That new therapist also recommended she participate in the pageant as a way to get out of her comfort zone.
Lawrence had heard about the competition from a friend’s Instagram post. It was her first time hearing about any kind of pageants specifically created for women who use a wheelchair.
It was also a big opportunity for her to spread mental health awareness.
She said she credits her ability to manage her anxiety during the pageant to a combination of meditation, therapy and medication.
Ms. Wheelchair South Carolina USA, Ashley Lawrence, and her husband Brad Lawrence. Ashley participated in the national Ms. Wheelchair USA competition where she placed in the top 5. Provided
“I was absolutely so very proud of her,” said Clark, Lawrence’s sister.
Being at the event was probably the best week of her life, Clark said — not only because she was able to see so many strong women, but she also got to see her sister be so poised, elegant and beautiful.
Now, Lawrence said she’s looking forward to taking her platform and sharing it with the Summerville and Lowcountry community. Her goal is to hold reading events and speeches at local schools.
The winner of the pageant, Erica Myron from Washington state, had a platform highlighting art and mental health. Lawrence said she hopes to also adapt something similar in the Summerville area.
“I intend on using every minute that I can,” she said.
Those who want to connect with Lawrence for any kind of event can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant is organized by the Dane Foundation, a nonprofit focused on supporting people with developmental and physical disabilities.
Though COVID-19 is still a concern, organizers said they were able to still safely hold the events. Lowery Lockard, the founder and executive producer of Ms. Wheelchair USA, said she was happy they were able to share the stories of all of the women.
“We have been very fortunate that our participants have all been safe and healthy, for the most part, during this pandemic,” she said.
Prior to the actual pageant, the contestants spend a week in Ohio going to different events and seminars. It’s also a chance for the contestants to build a close bond.
Though they were able to go to one of the local zoos and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Lawrence said it was a trip to a playground that will stick with her forever.
Beth Kelley, a contestant from New Jersey, said she had never been on a swing before. The space was one of the area’s first accessible playgrounds.
The group was able to get Kelley on one of the swings. Lawrence said the joy on her face was intoxicating.
“It’s so important because everybody should be able to have that joy,” she said. “I have truly come home with a new family.”
Reach Jerrel Floyd at 843-937-5558. Follow him on Twitter @jfloyd134.