Contestant with a Cause

06/21/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Dennis Shaughnessey

DRACUT -- It's not a beauty pageant, although Kristen Parisi would certainly qualify.

There is no evening gown competition. No swimsuit competition.

"Thank goodness," jokes Parisi, a 23-year-old Dracut resident who was named Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts in April.

Parisi, who is entering her senior year as a music major at UMass Lowell, heads to Washington, D.C., next month to compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America.

"For me, it's about being out there. Being someone that others with disabilities can look up to and say, 'She's been able to do so much even though she has a disability," says Parisi. "We're not less intelligent. We go out with our friends on weekends. We get married, have kids. There is life after rehab."

In addition to the competition and all that is involved, Parisi will spend the summer driving herself to Bridgewater, where she works as a counselor at Handi-Kids Camp.

When she was 5 years old, Parisi, who grew up in Utica, N.Y., was involved in a serious car accident about a mile from her house. Her mother was driving. Her sister and a cousin were also in the car. They suffered minor injuries. Parisi suffered a spinal-cord injury that left her a paraplegic.

A prolonged hospital stay was followed by years of rehab. Her parents, Peter and Anita Parisi, pushed her, never letting her concede defeat.

"They were ridiculous," she says with a gleaming smile. "They set up everything around me and made sure my life was as normal as possible."
 
There were swimming lessons. Vacations. Marching band in high school. "I was in what is called 'the pit' so I didn't actually have to march." There were the summers spent at the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., a special-needs camp that was founded by Charles R. Wood and Paul Newman. It was a great boost to her confidence and self-esteem. Camp workers reinforced what she had been taught by her parents.

"I could do anything and be anyone I wanted to be," she says.

Peter Parisi, who lives in Whitesboro, N.Y., says his youngest daughter has always had an independent streak.

"She's never needed much help, growing up," says Parisi, who has two older children. "She didn't like people doing things for her that she felt she could do herself. She's been through a lot and yet, she continues to be a role model for both children and adults with disabilities."

It wasn't until she became a teen that she started to feel "different."

"It was very frustrating," she recalls. "Living in upstate New York, skiing was the thing. Everybody went skiing, or sledding, or skating. I couldn't do those things."

There were the funny looks and heartbreaking rejections from boys, although she did dance at her senior prom.

"My close friend, George, who was my date, picked me up out of my wheelchair and held me like a baby. And we danced," she says.

A gifted musician, who plays oboe, guitar and piano, Parisi transferred from Utica College, where she was pursuing a public relations and journalism degree in her freshman year, and came to UMass Lowell to pursue music.

"I love Lowell. I love Massachusetts and New England," she exults. "I will probably never leave."

She found information about Ms. Wheelchair online and sent in an application. She bested five other contestants for the crown and sash. Judges gave her the nod after a series of one-on-one interviews and after her platform speech to an audience on the subject of mental illness. Judges look for someone who is confident and articulate and who can best advocate for those with disabilities.

Nationally, there are about 30 contestants from 25 states who will vie to be the face of Ms. Wheelchair America. Parisi would someday like to work as a mentor to disabled young people. If Parisi prevails in July, she is in for a whirlwind experience, according to 40-year-old Kristen McCosh of South Boston, who was the reigning Ms. Wheelchair America 2007.

"It's going to be hectic. There will be speaking engagements and appearances all year, but she will love it," says McCosh, who handed her Massachusetts title to Parisi in April. "The best part of it is speaking to other people with disabilities and letting them know there is still so much to accomplish. It's also a great way to network and meet other women who have overcome their individual barriers."

McCosh, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident when she was 15, says she still keeps in touch with other contestants she met along the way. She has added Parisi to that list.

The national competition will be held from July 21 to July 27 at the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, Md. Ms. Wheelchair America will be crowned on Saturday, July 26, as part of the coronation gala.