MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
One of the girls began to cry. Her turn to walk on the stage was looming.
The announcers called more names.
Tears masked her cheeks. Her mother tried to calm her, but her expression didn't change, until Damarius Pettway walked up to her.
Pettway, an Air Force ROTC cadet from Alabama State University, extended his arm and escorted her on stage. The stage was at the 2nd Annual Alabama Angels Pageant held at Hunter Hills Church in Prattville, July 28.
"Kristina Whitehurst," said the announcer, as Pettway walked her up the ramp to the stage.
Kristina's eyes widened as they breached the curtain. She and Pettway turned to wave to the audience. She stood with her shoulders as far back as they could go, walked as best she could, and mirrored Pettway's toothy smile.
Claps and cheers errupted.
"Kristina loves to sing, dance and play on the Kindle. She loves everything Disney, and has learned to speak several words in Japanese," said the announcer.
Nothing was said of the way she shuffled, or the other girls' wheel chairs, braces or speech impediments.
Kristina was then crowned "Teen Miss Happy Princess." Some of her friends were crowned "Teen Miss Awesome Horse Rider," and "Teen Miss Darling Dimples."
Renee Lantz, the pageant director, explained that the pageant participants are more familiar with weekly doctor visits, feeding tubes and getting in and out of wheel chairs than they are with wearing a crown. Most are not critiqued for singing "Les Mis," as Bitney Bennfield, "Miss Never Give Up," did at the pageant.
"This day is for them to forget about all of that and be recognized for who they are," said Lantz. "Everybody is a winner no matter what their abilities are."
Lantz's vision for this year's event was to have military members help make the participants' day. At a meeting about a month before the event, she told her staff, "It will be special for the participants to have strong military men and women by their sides as they take the stage."
Pettway, along with other military members, including about 25 from Maxwell Air Force base, answered Lantz's call.
As the girls, and some boys, arrived at the pagent in a horse-drawn carriage, Maxwell volunteers Chap. (Capt.) Mitchell Holley, Capt. Micheal Davault and Airman 1st Class Chris Elszasz, helped the participants off the carriage by either extending a hand or swooping them up out of the carriage.
The participants and the families were escorted to their seats by the uniformed members.
From the moment they went backstage to the time they were crowned, service members stayed by their sides, talking with them, taking photos together and sharing laughs.
When asked what it meant to have the military members at the event, Samantha Brasher, "Miss Ambassador of Angels," said, "It gave me more confidence."
"They are invaluable to this organization," said Tanya Murphy, pageant co-director, of the military members at the event. "They're so kind and polite. We couldn't do it without them. It wouldn't be the same kind of pageant without the military support just because of the loyalty and honor that they show, and how they are with the participants. Some of the participants can't speak or walk, and the military is just so proper and really show [the participants] the respect they deserve."
It was an honor for the volunteers, said Master Sgt. Susan Glover, a Maxwell volunteer.
"It is truly inspiring to see the talent and the smiles on the participants' faces," she said.
"This shows that no matter what obstacles you go through in your life, it is possible to find a bright side no matter what," added Senior Airman Tianhy Armstrong, a Maxwell volunteer.
As the participants left, they looked at their sashes, titles and crowns and smiled. Their day didn't have to do with doctors or operations, or unwanted stares. The service members said nothing of feeding tubes, hearing aids or other devices.
Instead, the members were caught trying to peer from the backstage to watch talent performances.
"It was just an awesome day full of blessing after blessing," said Susan Dean, a participant's parent, in an email to Lantz. "I can't thank you enough, along with everyone else who made the pageant so perfect."