GRANTS PASS, Ore.– For the first time in nearly 20 years, Oregon has an official delegate for a historic pageant and she happens to be from Grants Pass.
The Ms. Wheelchair America competition has been around since 1972 and was designed as an opportunity to promote the achievements of people with mobility impairments.
For Leslie Keller, she didn’t know about the competition until her coworker recommended she send in an application. Keller, who is diagnosed with a condition called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita or AMC, did just that and later found out she was accepted to represent Oregon.
Keller says during childhood she spent a lot of birthdays in the hospital due to the condition. According to her, AMC causes her to have less muscle mass than normal and joints in her body have been locked in various positions since birth.
“I’m missing bicep muscles, I don’t have pectoral muscles,” she said. “My leg muscles are limited. I did walk for several years.”
While there’s no shortage of trials Keller has managed the adversity. She got married, had three kids of her own and now has three grandchildren. It’s a growing family and she wants others to know they can accomplish anything as well.
“There’s no reason to treat us any different than anybody else,” she said. “We just happen to do things a little differently.”
That’s why she resonated with the Ms. Wheelchair America competition. Her boss and coworker Randy Samuelson was the first to introduce her to it. The two work together at HASL Center for Independent Living – a local non-profit that advocates for people with disabilities.
“She kind of really epitomizes the independent living spirit which is don’t give up,” said Samuelson.
After reading more about the competition, Keller says she knew it would be a great platform for their advocacy.
“It’s based on showing the world that people with disabilities are just like everybody else,” she said.
With her grandchildren as an influence, Keller is making her platform about sharing with the youth. She hopes to teach young kids without disabilities that people with disabilities are no different. She hopes to also inspire young children with disabilities and push them to reach for goals without any limit.
“Parents will pull their kid away and be like, ‘No no no. Don’t bother them’ and I’m like it’s ok let them talk to me,” said Keller. “I feel like if I can reach the youth then the next generation growing up may let their child be ok with talking, asking questions cause how else are you going to know.”
It’s a long road to the finals. The national competition is set to take place in Little Rock, Arkansas on August 17-23. In the meantime, she’s planning on touring the state to give speeches and share her story with schools and young children.
But Keller is determined to represent Oregon as best she can. Besides, nothing has stopped her yet.
Keller is also fundraising for costs to get to the national competition in Arkansas. If you’d like to donate, you can do so by clicking here.
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NBC5 News Reporter Miles Furuichi graduated from Chapman University with degrees in English and Journalism. He received post graduate experience in Los Angeles in photojournalism and commercial photography. He also spent time in Dublin, Ireland working in print journalism and advertising.
Miles is a Rogue Valley native, raised in Ashland. He enjoys hiking, mountain biking and photography.