Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"Steps Of Hope" By Stephanie Welter


     Photo booths, flash moms and lots of friends. That’s how I will describe this year’s Step’s Of Hope put on by the Autism Society of Minnesota. Each year vendors and sponsors get together at Southdale mall to put on a bit of a party of sorts for the autism community and their family members.

     As Mrs. Minnesota International I had the privilege of placing medals around the necks of kids that ran what was called the “flash race.” It was a very fast walk around lower level shops. Naturally, some of those fast walks morphed into trots, which lead to full out sprinting for first place! Trying to abide by mall rules in those situations is not the easiest, but watching those kids faces as they crossed the finish line was priceless.
     As we strolled around taking silly pictures in the photo booth, and spinning wheels to win prizes, we ran into a friend from long ago. When my son looked up and saw one of his first therapists from when he was just a toddler he yelled, “Christine!” and a gigantic smile spread across his face. Christine was one of the first therapists we hired as a Clinical Supervisor at the therapy center I co-founded called  The Lazarus Project when Ben was just a toddler. She worked with Benjamin for years. She now has her own company and was one of the vendors. With precious people like Christine, not much changes in your heart for those who became like family in order to help your child reach their full potential in every area of life.

     Toward the end of the event, my kids and I stood to hear who would win the prize drawings, when suddenly we heard the sounds of dance music start, and our attention immediately went to a group of young teenagers who had taken over the middle of the rotunda area to begin to perform in a flash mob dance! They had choreographed their own dance moves and selected the music. Their moves were original and some of them looked pretty difficult to perform! The crowd was very generous with applause and praise for these kids who had clearly worked very hard to gift us with a little fun that day.

     As we walked around to meet and greet all the superheroes (Flash Gordon, Storm and the Power Rangers) and princess we noticed in the sea of faces, the warm smiles of friends of Ben’s from The MAC School. It was a reminder to me and my family how connected we truly all are. There’s a real sense of comradery and support.

     I applaud the Autism Society of Minnesota for their diligent ongoing work in the Autism community. They support and help provide services and resources for tens of thousands of families like mine each year. They are one of the most active branches of the Autism Society of America in the entire country, and the staff and volunteers are all heart. We are truly grateful, and plan to be at Steps of Hope in upcoming years!

Monday, January 29, 2018

"Pageant Life" by Stephanie Welter


     It’s hard to put into words the experience of being crowned a title-holder, a.k.a. A “Queen” and someone who’s been embraced by this amazing sisterhood of accomplished women. To say it’s an “honor” is the understatement of the year!


     I’ve had the opportunity to meet and befriend so many strong, powerful women including former and current title holders that continue to carry the torch forward in life and make a difference for our communities in any way they can. So, when I was introduced to the new website PagentLife.net, and asked to be a featured title-holder and a spokesperson for the site I was blown away. What this means is that my platform of Understanding the Puzzle of Autism would be broadcast around the world in dozens of other languages! What an incredible opportunity!


      The idea behind the website, is to create a community for women and girls in pageants to access former and current title holders and other experts in the industry for input, insights, coaching, guidance, advice, feature articles and resources that would connect them with everything they need to be successful to win a crown. But MUCH more important than “winning a crown” is actually BEING a titleholder. Remember, there are lots of variables that go into winning a crown, but to BE a titleholder, a “queen” means giving your time, energy and talents to being a public servant. It’s not just a “job” for a year. It’s a lifestyle. It means making appearances, and going above and beyond the call of duty to help raise awareness for and support the causes you believe in and are passionate about.


     As a spokesperson for this new resource in pageantry, I am most excited about being able to connect with others that aspire to take their dream, no matter how young or old, no matter how much experience (or lack thereof) and step forward into something that will push them, challenge them, and grow them in ways they would have never imagined as it’s done for me. I am living proof that you don’t have to be an experienced “pageant patti” to win a pageant - to win your FIRST pageant in fact! Honestly, I had never even BEEN to a pageant before I entered into and won Mrs. Minnesota International. But here’s what I had...I had a vision, I had an amazing platform that I have LIVED for 20 years, and I was willing to learn from a coach and those in the sisterhood that were willing to gift me with their time and invaluable insights.

What more do you need?


     I am grateful to get the chance to share my platform with the world through this new venue, and I am excited to connect with those who are looking to join the sisterhood!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

"Speaking out for MAC" by Stephanie Welter

      When I was asked to “say something” for the brand new MAC School video, of course I said “yes!” right away. But, this time things would be different. Instead of speaking on behalf of my partner organization as a title holder, I would be speaking on behalf of The Minnesota Autism Center School as a parent to describe my son’s experience attending school there, and how our lives have changed as a result.


     The day before the video shoot, I was thinking about all the new things my son Benjamin has learned, and all the progress he’s made in his language skills just in the last year or so. As I made a mental list of the recent accomplishments, from cooking some of his meals on his own, to coming up to me in the kitchen just to tell me he loves me...a little ping notification came across my phone. It was an email from Ben’s lead therapist Joey at the MAC School. He just wanted to write me a quick note to tell me that Ben is truly “a star student.” He said Ben works hard every day to improve his skills. He also said that when he was asked that day what the students did the night before, Ben raised his hand, and when called on said with perfect complete sentences, “I was with mom, I ate pepperoni pizza, and we played cards.” When asked what game he played, he said, “We played garbage, and I WON!”


     My son is 20 years old. It’s amazing how most of us parents take little things for granted. But, to hear this come from my son, who just two years ago was not yet formulating full sentences is nothing short of amazing. It gives me new hope! There was a day when my son was a toddler and I was told he would not learn past the age of 7. The “experts” were wrong. Thank goodness! My son continues to learn new skills each and every month and I do believe...no...I KNOW his potential is unlimited.


     For parents of children with special needs, our biggest challenge can sometimes be to remain creative and hopeful in what often seems to be a “long” and tiring “process.” We hope and pray for rewards. We hope we’re making right decisions. We wonder if we could be...should be doing “more.” Having been on this journey now for many years not only with my son but with our whole family, I am inspired again. I have a bit of a “second wind” of hope as we turn the corner of adulthood with my son and continue to watch to see who this amazing and unique individual truly is. There’s more hope than ever before for families in need of tools and resources and my prayer is that my son Ben’s story will inspire families to keep moving forward, and keep expecting miracles...even if they’re little ones here and there...they add up.

"Skol Vikings!" by Stephanie Welter


     I’ll be the first to admit...I’ve been a fair-weather Minnesota Vikings Fan. They’ve come so close many times to making it to playoffs only to allow errors to cost a game. So, when I was asked to appear at a Vikings Fan Club gathering I was excited, not so much to watch the game, but more-so to meet the interesting people I knew would be there. And, as Mrs. Minnesota International, I knew I was going to get a chance to speak at halftime about my platform Understanding The Puzzle of Autism.


     In an unexpected turn of events, I not only had a blast cheering and screaming for the Vikings, but I learned the Skol Vikings song AND was able to connect with some parents of children with Autism including Talance Sawyer, who was once a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings!


     As we cheered and chanted, the Vikings played their best, although that particular day we did not taste victory (of course that was 1 of only 3 losses in their pre-playoff season). It didn’t matter to me that day. As I took the microphone and announced how grateful I was to be there, and how welcomed I felt by the fan club, and began telling the story of my son Benjamin, the dull hum in the event center fell silent.

     I watched people’s faces change, I saw heads nod in agreement as I spoke about the skyrocketing numbers of children diagnosed these days, and the unique “special abilities” that are often overlooked in the Autism community. As I finished and said one final “thank you” to the crowd, I was met with a circle of interested parents who wanted to share their own stories of the children and in some cases grandchildren that they loved and cared for that also have a diagnosis of Autism.


     As I got to know former Vikings player Talance Sawyer and as he described his son and their journey with the diagnosis, I was most impressed with the various types of interventions they’ve already tried and are working on with his 8 year old son. He knew about everything from special diets to biomedical intervention to Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy! I was also very proud to learn that he and his wife are considering moving back to Minnesota because of the extensive and innovative therapeutic schools Minnesota now has. It also gave me the chance to brag about the amazing work my partner organization The Minnesota Autism Center Schools are doing to help thousands of kids around the state get the schooling and therapy they need to live full, productive and happy lives.

Monday, December 4, 2017

"AHA Gala" by Devika Narayan

“We raised a RECORD-BREAKING 1.5 million dollars this year!!!” Hearing this statement, made my heart fill with joy, knowing that I had been a part of the incredible feat. Last weekend I was lucky enough to volunteer as well as appear at the annual American Heart Association Gala at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The red-carpet event is held annually to help raise funds for the AHA to help patients directly.


Today over 610,000 individuals are affected yearly by heart disease in the US alone. Affecting individuals of all ages and abilities, the heart disease plagues the lives of many. Being a part of the event and knowing I was helping this cause made me happy to represent not only the International Organization, but also the fact that I could connect with donors and supporters and hear their “why”, or their passion or inspiration for attending and supporting the AHA.


Hearing the “why” from people was a really moving experience. To hear about family members affected, and how other family members can only watch and contribute to events such as the Gala really made me appreciate the efforts of organizations like the AHA and their mission to help patients with the resources they really need.


One of my very fun roles of the evening was to be a part of the Tiffany booth, one of the main auction booths. There, I was not only able to help donors understand the purpose and goal of the Tiffany booth, but was also able to meet and speak with them personally, talking about my platform with my title, and my commitment with the AHA. As a queen, you always get to talk about all the fun events and organizations you work with, but that evening it felt really great to tell people about how I really am committed to these individuals and the efforts of the organization.


Overall, it was an unforgettable experience that I will cherish. Being able to connect and use my title the way that I am able to is something I will always be grateful for.

"Kind kids" by Stephanie Welter


    One of my favorite jobs is to spend time on the air with my friends at KTIS Radio. My good friend Keith Stevens of the KTIS afternoon show did a segment while I was on with him called “kind kids,” where we took a minute to acknowledge good hearted kids who go out of their way to do kind things for others.
    We took phone calls from listeners who wanted to share with pride their kids and how they are doing things like befriending kids at school who seem lonely, and others who are starting charitable organizations to help kids who go without school lunches. During our time listening and cheering on other parents for supporting their kind kids, I had the chance to reflect on my own amazing 4 children (two of which are no longer “kids” but amazing nonetheless).

  I was reminded of how much my 12, 14 and 21 year old help their 20 year old brother Ben who has a diagnosis of Autism. When you are a family with an individual with special needs - and special gifts, your kids have endless opportunities to display kindness and help. They grow up with a different perspective than most. They tend to be a bit more flexible. They are more understanding of others with special needs and exhibit acts of compassion because they have more opportunity too throughout life at home and out and about in the community with a sibling who needs a bit of extra assistance.

  Last week my heart melted as I watched my 12 year old daughter help her brother bake chocolate chip cookies. He was really excited about the prospect of having cookies and I thought it would be fun to teach him how to make them himself (with appropriate measures of help). My daughter Savannah stepped in and I marveled at how sweet and gentle she was in her instruction.
  I see as my kids get older how incredibly beneficial it has been for them to have come alongside their brother to teach him different things or to guide him through the daily components of life. I know how much we have all been blessed by Ben’s sensitivity, his intelligence, his sweet spirit and his sense of humor. We’ve learned more than I have room to write about from Benjamin. There have been challenges, of course. But, as my children grow and mature, I can see now all the incredible qualities they exhibit the older they get and the more we spend time with other families and with other kids. Compassion, empathy, kindness and patience are not necessarily qualities that come naturally to everyone. But these qualities certainly can be taught, practiced and encouraged in our own kids and giving kids the chance to prove how kind they can be will be an exercise in humanity and care that I believe we will all benefit from. I’m proud of my “kind kids!”

"Autism Speaks " by Stephanie Welter

    A few months ago I received a message from a beautiful woman that I had met this spring when I had the honor of giving the commencement speak at LionsGate Academy graduation ceremony. Her and I had the chance to speak about her little boy and also her nephew, who at the time was graduating. We exchanged contact information and resolved that we would connect down the road.
    When I received a message from Ramona to join her and team Autism Love at the annual Autism Speaks walk, I was thrilled. I immediately said yes and knew we were going to have an incredible adventure. I was honored to walk with her and Jayden, but was also walking for my son Benjamin and our entire family.
   Our walk began as we gathered together at the US Bank Stadium, a place I had never been, but was awe-struck by. It’s an incredibly beautiful piece of architecture and the fact that we were going to get the chance to actually walk ON the field sent a thrill up everyone’s spine. We gathered together in the middle of the field and prepared to honor our loved ones with a sensory friendly cheer. We each had pom-poms and instead of cheering and clapping, we quietly shook out pom-poms in solidarity and with excitement as we prepared for the national anthem.
    A young man took the stage. I was told he had autism, and as he stepped to the microphone to sing the national anthem, tears fell from my eyes. It was a beautiful sound and an even more moving site to see this young man stand in courage in front of a crowd and share in these moments of togetherness and community.
    We watched as photos flashed across the jumbotron of our smiling, laughing faces and teams gathered for team shots. We saw the signal 3...2...1 on the jumbotron and the walk officially began.
    As we walked we all talked and shared stories, therapeutic journeys and bragged about the amazing progress and achievements both big and small that our loved ones were making. Kids shook their pom-poms, parents pushed strollers and advocates held team signs. After a few laps about US Bank Stadium, the walk was complete and the organization Autism Speaks completed another successful fundraising walk to help kids on the spectrum get the help and support they need to live full productive lives.
    The more time I spend in the autism community the more fascinated I am and the more proud I become.

"Spooktacular" by Stephanie Welter


    If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in being partnered with The Minnesota Autism Center Schools (The MAC School) is that when they put on an event, they do it right and they do it well! This year’s annual “Spooktacular” was no exception!
    The staff goes out of their way to present fun, adventurous activities for the students, so when they get a chance to decorate, set up game stations and put together a “spooky trail” they go all out and spend a lot of time and energy.
    This year the kids walked through the doors dressed up in their favorite costumes to a hallway filled with games. In order to get their “treat” the students had to do various things like tell a joke, play a game, or throw a ping pong ball into a tiny glass in order get their candy. As I approached the first station with my son Ben, the girls behind the candy station said to Ben, “Ummm….in order to get candy here, you have to tell us a joke.” I hesitated and said, “uh oh, I don’t think…..” no sooner did I get those words out of my mouth when Ben started. “Knock Knock” he said. “Who’s there?” they both chimed in simultaneously. “Boo!” he said. “Boo who?” they asked. “Don’t cry, it’s only a joke!” He replied as we all laughed.
    We sat and ate pumpkin shaped sugar cookies and headed into the dance. The gymnasium had special blue lights and a hologram projection of a haunted house against the wall with some quiet playing music and rubber insects on the floor.
   They offered a “trail of terror” type of experience which I never do. I don’t enjoy being scared out of my wits, but I asked Ben if he wanted to go and of course he said, “yes!” Off we went, tour guide in front of us cracking “scary” jokes, flashlights in hand we ventured off out the back door and into the woods. Left and right people dressed like zombies popped out of us. My sons laughed and joked while I screamed and jumped nearly out of my skin. I had more fun than I expected too and we all decided at the end that once again this year this event was even better than last. Complete success!
The kids were happy, the parents got great photographs and the staff got to try their hand at costume design and acting.
    One things that us parents of kids and even young adults on the autism spectrum, is when we get the opportunity to do “typical” kinds of things that other kids get to enjoy. The MAC School goes out of their way to provide “typical” kinds of fun activities for kids that are not neuro-typical. These kids work hard each day to do the things that most of us take advantage of, so to be able to laugh and enjoy and watch them thrive is a treasure to a parent like me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

"The Great Minnesota Get Together”by Devika Narayan

Receiving the request to be a part of the State Fair parade was an invitation I wasn’t truly prepared for. Ever since I was little, I had always anxiously waited for the time of year when I could go experience all the fun and excitement the fair had to offer. Being invited to be a part of that experience brought a whole new level of excitement I had never felt before.

All four of the International queens were invited and we were able to join other state queens on the float!! It was so fun to see and hear about the experiences of other queens across the state and to hear about their accomplishments and goals for their reigns.

Other than the incredible other women that stood with me on the float, the experience of seeing what “The Great Minnesota Get Together”  really meant was unforgettable. To see someone’s face light up or even smile made me realize how prestigious this title really can be.

Other than my amazing experience on the float, I was able to represent my title as Miss Teen MN International at the Alzheimer’s Association booth. As it is my platform, the Alzheimer’s Association asked if I would like to volunteer and represent my cause at the fair, which excited me beyond words! By using the simplistic game of plinko, I was able to invite individuals to come, play, and learn of the effects of Alzheimer’s. It was really humbling on my part to be able to talk about Alzheimer’s in such a way to not only represent the association, but also to help spread the importance of prevention and my mission to find a cure. By participating in such fun appearances, I know I have fulfilled my duties as a queen.

Friday, September 29, 2017

"Queen’s Parade" by Stephanie Welter


    When I received the email request to appear in the State Fair parade, I nearly jumped out of my high heels! The great Minnesota Get Together is visited by record breaking numbers each year. This year alone over 1.9 people attended, and my family and I were among them only this year I got a very special seat.
    As a state titleholder with the International system, myself and my sister queens (the Miss, the Teen and the pre-teen) were all invited to ride the Queen’s float! It was thirty minutes of smiles, waves and laughter as we watched the crowd mirror back to us the official “royal wave.” We were surprised and delighted to see how familiar this royal hand-swaying gesture really is and we had to admit that many in the crowd had it mastered even better than we did!

    As we arrived on the grounds, our float awaited us like a chariot waiting to enter a royal processional. As the other minnesota royalty arrived, we each took our place on benches and platforms to prepare for the 40 minute ride. The girls, all in their beautiful sparkling gowns, banners and crowns, I was the least “formal” as my family and I had plans to visit the animal barns at enjoy at least one tub of the fair’s famous “Martha’s Cookies!”
    There’s truly nothing like watching thousands of strangers display smiles and waves of kindness, knowing that you represent their community and state with pride and grace.
Several times as we moved along the streets of the parade grounds, I heard my name yelled from the crowd and would look up with delight to see a familiar friend! One familiar voice especially caught my attention (the voice of my husband) and as I heard my name being called I frantically searched the sea of faces to find his. It took me several seconds but at least I saw my husband and our line of kids all along the curb smiling and waving with pride. My heart skipped a beat as I saw their faces, especially my son Benjamin for whom if it were not for his brave journey through what we know as “autism” I wouldn’t be up there as a representative not only of our beautiful state, but also of our precious and invaluable neuro-diverse community. I swallowed back a tear, blew them a kiss and proceeded to scan the crowd for new and excited little faces.
    After the parade my family and I enjoyed touring Minnesota’s businesses at the grand stand, marveling at record breaking, award winning livestock, and indeed indulging in funnel cakes, cookies and pronto pups!
    I have never been so proud to be a Minnesotan, and to represent the title of Mrs. Minnesota International than on that day among hundreds of thousands of friends and neighbors on a picture perfect August day!