“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.
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!”
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.
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.
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
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!
The City of Plymouth, my current hometown, is
the third largest suburb in Minnesota and one of the most simplistic yet
incredible places yet. It’s easy for anyone to say that their hometown is fun
for a various list of reasons, but Plymouth is definitively one of the best
places to live, besides, we’ve won the best place to live in Minnesota for a
countless amount of years. Now living here, I may be a bit biased in my
opinion, but there are a ton of reasons to love Plymouth.
We have so many fun places
to eat, like Honey and Mackie’s (my favorite place), a family-owned restaurant
with the ABSOLUTE best ice-cream and fries. The food there is obviously really
great, but the atmosphere is what really makes the place amazing. From the
moment you step in you almost immediately feel welcomed. For me, that’s what
makes it so memorable and keeps bringing me back. Other than all the amazing
places to eat, there’s also so much to see!
The Plymouth Millennium Garden has
to be one of the places I think back to when I think of a “fairytale garden”.
The thousands of flowers and fountains in the garden make it the perfect place
for any occasion, ranging from the weddings that have taken place there, to my
various Girl Scout bridging ceremonies!! At the end of the day, it’s a city
with so many special things to see and do, but I’ll just end this blog with
that so you come visit me and see for yourself ;)!!
When Casey Schutrop of Wow Ministries first messaged me on Facebook to ask me to be a part of her Project I had no idea how it would change the world as I know it.
Casey has organized local events for, a national effort called Project 427 that intercepts kids caught up in human trafficking, and help provide legal, housing and life development programs for them.
I was shocked to learn that the project took it’s name after a set up statistics. Every hour, 42 children are trafficked 7 days a week. As an advocate of the Autism Community, I am also troubled to learn that special needs and vulnerable individuals are targets to trafficking.
The 427 Project is both a coalition and a platform for a public awareness and education campaign before, during and after the Super Bowl 52 which happens in the Twin Cities in February 2018. What rocked me to my core, is when Casey explained to me that the children trafficked each year in the US would fill the 66,655 seats in the U.S. Bank stadium FIVE TIMES. She also told me that for cities that host a major event (like a super bowl) trafficking rates skyrocket in that city, and unfortunately, they do not come back down much in the months and years following.
I was invited to two fundraising and awareness events, and when Casey does a thing….she does it right! I arrived on the beautiful grounds of the HighView stables to a summer celebration of BBQ chicken and other great food (including the best S’mores I’ve ever had) along with great drawing prizes, games and a live 11 piece musical ensemble!
The most memorable thing however, was meeting the “behind the scenes” and “in the field” individuals who make intervention and prevention possible. From police sergeants to educators to therapists and a team of volunteers, it truly take a village of heartfelt, compassionate persevering individuals to help end and heal the devastation of human trafficking.
I was awestruck to hear from those who were victimized by trafficking and what their lives had been reduced too. As Casey spoke, she mentioned that although we were in a beautiful area in a beautiful wealthy suburb in the Twin Cities, a brothel was in operation just 1.5 miles from our gathering.
I was an am honored to partner with Project 427 to raise awareness, money and anything else needed to help set captives free from the every growing travesty that is human trafficking.
So far, one of my most memorable experiences
as Miss Minnesota International, has been the Miss International Pageant.It was a week filled with not only the glitz
and glamour of the pageant world, but volunteering and giving back. I met so
many new and wonderful people and had experiences I will carry through the rest
of my life.
Miss International was held in Charleston West
Virginia.I love the east coast and West
Virginia has some of the most beautiful sceneries in the U.S. Orientation day,
we met the Mayor of Charleston. He was so excited and humbled to have us there
and the sense of community we all felt was tremendous. My favorite service
project was interacting with the kids at the local boys and girls club. We
colored, played games, and chatted about basketball and movies. It was so
amazing to catch a glimpse of life through their eyes.
Although I didn’t make top ten on finals
night, I’m still proud of my performance. I know I did the best that I could
and tried to make Minnesota proud as well.I am so honored to have such amazing support here at home and this
pageant only made me realize how much I love this state.All the friends I made and the people who
influenced me pageant week have left an imprint on my heart.I can’t wait to see what’s coming next
because of the experiences I had at Miss International.
Shortly after being crowned Mrs. Minnesota International, I got my first official request. How exciting! It was from my director Allison, sending me my very first appearance request as a new crown titleholder!
She explained to me that this was a tradition amongst the international queens, that each year, the Minnesota International royalty made a trip to Hoyt Lakes which is in northern Minnesota to Crown local Hoyt Lakes royalty in this beautiful part of our state.
That was three months ago, and I've done many appearances since then, but this week I finally got the chance to head to Hoyt Lakes for the very first time and be a part of this extraordinary tradition. Robert Bartholomew has been spearheading this beautiful crowning event for decades, but this year he's passing the torch on to a group of young women who are already prepared to carry it forth with excellence. Bob is a jack-of-all-trades as head of the Chamber of Commerce, a local business owner, a guitar player, and a man that is highly respected in his community for his public service.
As I made my journey 4 hours north of the Twin Cities, I passed rolling hills, tall Northern Pines, an occasional deer grazing near the tree line and lots and lots of lakes!
As I pulled up to the event venue I caught a glimpse of the stage with all the beautiful young ladies in their perfect gowns and got excited.
Bob walked up to greet me warmly and we chuckled about the fact that we were both wearing royal blue. He escorted me to the stage, and up I went to take my place among the hopeful new royalty. I was given opportunity to say a few words, so I encouraged the lovely young ladies and talked about how much courage it took to be up in this position standing up in front of the community having worked very hard to win a local title. The fact that they all had promising futures ahead of them as strong, beautiful young women inside and out, and had the chance to talk briefly about my role as a representative not only for the state of Minnesota but also for the beautiful autism community, and how I would soon be given the opportunity to share the platform of Understanding the Puzzle of Autism with a national and an international audience.
Within no time, the new Queen had the crown placed upon her head, and the mini’s in their beautiful little taffeta dresses came clicking up in their tiny shoes to hug her and take photographs with her. But, what struck me most was how all of the other young ladies her age turned to her to embrace and encourage her and spent time afterward chatting, hugging, and taking photographs together... as a group of friends. It really seemed to be a network of support and encouragement.
Thank you Hoyt Lakes for showing me your beauty, and allowing me the experience of helping to Crown a group of truly exceptional and promising young ladies!
“Here they come! Wow! They look like they mean business!”
That was the unified chant of the crowd the day the word TEAM took on new meaning for my son and his school mates at The MAC School.
We love chartering new territory, and although it’s risky, we typically charge forward full steam ahead. Kathryn (the MAC School Director) loves proving people wrong when they express “concern” over our kids trying new activites. That’s what makes it fun. We’ve learned that it always pays off to take those risks.
This day, was another “first”. The very first softball game EVER played by my son Ben and his classmates. We took our seats in the bleachers, and the kids ran enthusiastically out to the field, suited up, ball caps and all, and gloves in hand. They began to practice and the crowd began to fall silent. I think there was a collective “awe” that we’re really gonna try this and see how the kids do their first time playing softball.
After a few minutes of watching my son Ben toss the ball to his classmate, we watched the Minnesota Twins van roll up and again began to cheer as we watched TC the bear bounce out of the van, followed by Twins pitcher Hector Santiago! We began clapping as they took the field to practice with the kids.
When the Minnesota Twins baseball franchise heard about our desire to start the first ever softball team for kids on the spetrum. They got excited and wanted to participate!
It was what came next that suprised and amzazed even us “seasoned” parents. We stood to sing the national anthem sung by Nate who has the voice of an angel (many kids on the autism spectrum have what’s called “perfect pitch” and it is exactly as it sounds...the ability to sing perfectly on pitch after hearing a note). As soon as he completed the song the empire shouted “Play ball!” and the first student stood up to bat sending the crowd once again to our feet cheering and shouting encourgement and praises for each swing. Hector Santiago tossed in that first pitch...and...a base hit!! The next child stood up to the plate with therapists, parents and sibblings cheeing them on. On it went in like fashion. Tears stung the sides of my cheeks as I watched my 19 year old son walk up to the plate, take hold of that bat and swing….CRACK! A nice grounder to third base, putting him safely on 1st! All in all he was up to bat twice and got base hits both times. I was felt such pride and such gratitude for this moment...for all these little moments of victorious “firsts.”
After the game, we all enjoyed snacks and lemonade, marveling at the job well done by the students and staff, telling them so - profously! TC gave hugs and Hector signed autographs and the kids absolutely beamed with pride at having done something new, and having succeeded!
I was asked to take the microphone and say a few words, so I thanked the staff for working so hard with our kids. Thanked the Twins for their encouragement and support, and reminded the parents of my new favorite accornym:
So, I was crowned Miss Minnesota
International. Now what? Well, I’ll tell you! I’m so excited for all the events
and opportunities coming up this year, especially about my platform. I plan on
taking advantage of this title as much as possible and I hope to inspire and
influence many people throughout my reign. I can’t wait!
Recently, I was accepted to the Speaker Bureau
for my platform, MakeItOkay. I will be trained as a professional speaker and
volunteer. With this opportunity I can educate so many people and the
importance of mental health. I will be able to spread awareness for my platform
and share my story!
I also plan on making as many appearances as I
can! I hope to talk to different schools and public events about this wonderful
pageant system and of course, my platform. I’m also looking forward to
volunteering for many community nonprofits and events. This includes, Walk a
Mile in her Shoes, NAMI, and the animal shelter! I’m so excited and I can’t
wait to share it all with the amazing people around me!
Her name was Anna. She was having (this is not the technical term for it) a meltdown.Beautiful in her bold, satiny Royal Blue cap and gown, wheat blond hair brushed smooth, blue eyes pooling with tears and a look of sheer terror settling onto her face.
“Mrs Welter, would you please spend some time with Anna, she needs a “break“. “Of course!” I said, literally jumping into action and finding a small, quiet corner outside of the Marriott Hotel lobby. I had done this many times for many kids over the years, and the school director who has known me for 15 years knew that Anna was in good hands.
As we sat down side by side I started to ask Anna a few questions to take her mind off of her present state of anxiety, providing a pattern disrupter to move her into a new state in her breathing and in her body. We giggled a few times. Her eyes went from terror, to curiosity and she got very close to my face and asked my if I was wearing the crown because I was this year’s Homecoming Queen. I laughed and told her “kind of.” As she expressed her concern over the potential levels of volume during the graduation ceremony (that we were moments away from), and that she had never graduated before, I reminded her that there would also be as much quiet as there was loud, and shared with her that I had never spoken at a graduation ceremony before. After admitting that we were both a bit nervous, but that it would be ok to be nervous for a little while, and that some of the nervousness might actually be mixed with a little excitement, we stood up arm in arm and got into the processional line.
I was there to see Anna and her classmates graduate from Lionsgate Academy (a High school for students on the Autism spectrum). She and her classmates were there to hear me speak to them and send them into their next season in life with some sort of encouragement.
What ended up happening was a much deeper, much more profound exchange.
As I stood up to speak and looked into the faces of these extraordinary seniors ready to graduate, I looked down into my open binder, glanced back up again, this time at the student’s parents, siblings, and glancing at the staff and teachers, I closed my binder. I knew in that moment what they needed most was for me to share my story and the parts of the journey that they might most identify with.
I shared the most vulnerable things I had gone through. Anna had inspired me to talk about my 10 year struggle with acute anxiety and panic.
I shared that shortly after Ben was diagnosed with Autism, I felt very helpless and out of control as to how to best help my precious son. To my surprise, a few of the students, staring up at me actually shook their heads “yes” in order to let me know that they ‘knew’....that they could identify with that feeling. I was astonished. I went onto to describe my journey and how it led me to that stage that night. I encouraged them to do what their hearts told them they COULD do (despite what anyone else said) because if that dream lived in their hearts, than they already have everything they need to see it come to pass, and explained how that might look for them going forward. That it might include a bit of resistance, a test or two, but that all of that would be a part of the process that would end up helping them eventually and that continuing in their goal or dream would be well worth it. No matter how “big” or “small” that seemed.
When I was finished speaking, each student got to select a staff member, therapist or teacher to speak on their behalf and tell a funny story or share something unique about that student. These students range in their diagnosis from moderately affected by the symptoms of ASD, to “twice exceptional” with IQ’s in the geneious range so the stories of progress and accomplishment were amazing!
I can honestly say it was one of the most precious experiences to be a part of. These staff members reminisced, laughed and cried as they shared their favorite stories and how proud they were of the progress they’ve seen these kids make and how far they’ve come since entering the Lion’s Gate Academy School program.
By the end of the night we shared some laughs, a lot of sentimental tears, a few hugs and a ton of encouragement.
Lionsgate had given these kids the wings to fly. Now, I cannot wait to see all the wonderful places those wings take them!