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.