Area resident competes for Ms. Wheelchair USA title
By Megan Hopps
SUN PRESS Newspapers
Shimmer and shine and a whole lot of strength. That’s what it takes to be the next Ms. Wheelchair USA.
No one knows this better than Brooklyn Park resident Jen Onsum.
“I was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy when I was 18 months old,” Onsum said. “My parents recognized the signs of the disease because one of my older brothers also has SMA. At the time, doctors said I probably wouldn’t make it beyond my toddler years.”
They were wrong. Nearly 30 years later, Onsum strives to empower others through hope and encouragement.
Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) is a genetic disorder that affects the control of muscle movement. It is caused by a loss of motor neurons in the spinal cord and the brainstem. The loss of motor neurons leads to the weakness of muscles. In severe cases of SMA, the muscles used for breathing and swallowing are affected. Currently, there is no way for children born with SMA to rebuild or regrow muscle.
“My parents never once treated me like a child with a disability,” Onsum said. “They never treated me like I was fragile or told me I couldn’t do something because of my disability. They made sure I had every opportunity other kids did and would get creative when necessary to make it possible for me to do something. They just let me be a kid.”
Onsum attended classes as her able-bodied peers did and was always held to the same expectations they were. The only adapted class she took was Adapted Physical Education.
During her school years, Onsum was involved in Girl Scouts and played adapted athletics. She began working in high school at the age of 16.
“I was also a member of DECA, a club for students interested in marketing and advertising,” Onsum said.
Eighteen years ago, she began playing Power Hockey and fell in love with the game.
“We play on a gym floor, use a whiffle ball instead of a puck, and use plastic or composite sticks,” Onsum said. “Some players are able to hold their stick, while others, like me, attach our stick to our chair. Beyond that, we follow basic hockey rules with minor adaptations to accommodate wheelchairs. It’s competitive, exciting and tons of fun.”
After graduating from Armstrong High School, Onsum attended the University of St. Thomas where she earned a bachelors in journalism.
“I learned very quickly how to advocate for myself and to be comfortable asking others who I may not know for help with things like opening doors or pushing elevator buttons for me,” Onsum said.
She joined a sorority named Gamma Sigma Sigma, a national sorority with a mission of doing service in the community and was also a member of the Public Relations Student Society of America.
“I’m always looking for things to do that may not be considered easy or even achievable for someone with physical limitations such as mine,” Onsum said.
Growing up, Onsum always enjoyed watching beauty pageants on television with her family. After doing some research, she then discovered the Ms. Wheelchair USA beauty pageant for women with disabilities. That’s when Onsum decided to give it a shot.
“Participating in the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition was an amazing experience,” Onsum said. “It was so great spending a few days with other women who utilize wheelchairs, getting to know them and their story, and sharing experiences and suggestions. Each contestant wanted to make a difference for others and it was really great being around others with a passion like mine.”
Onsum knew that she was in the right place the because the goals of the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant lined up with her own: to inspire all women, despite any disability, to be beautiful, glamorous and self-confident.
“Sometimes when people think of people with disabilities, they immediately think of having to overcome obstacles,” Onsum said. “I don’t see life with a disability as a life with having obstacles. I see it as life with unique challenges that are learning experiences for you; experiences that help you become who you are.”
Onsum was selected to represent Minnesota in the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant for the 2014 year.
Her platform throughout her Ms. Wheelchair Minnesota-USA 2014 reign is “Keeping Your Attitude Active,” something she is more than passionate about. Having been very active her whole life, Onsum is a firm believer in finding something to do or be involved in, because she believes it will help one to have a healthy attitude. And to Onsum, attitude is everything, no matter what life brings.
“I think it’s important to always remember that everyone deserves to live a happy and full life, and to be an active member of society,” Onsum said. “I know there are days when life is hard. Sometimes it’s tough, but keeping a positive attitude will help pull you through. Just remember, for every bad day, there’s a thousand good ones.”
Contact Megan Hopps at [email protected]