SHERIDAN — The bright lights shine on the crowns and sashes as the pageant contestants cross the stage in their evening gowns.
The audience laughs or maybe sheds a tear as the representative from their state takes to the mic to speak about her platform and answer impromptu questions from the judges.
There are many common traits among national pageants but one local contestant will take to the stage representing Wyoming in a competition with a unique aspect.
Chandra Nicole Hendricks of Sheridan has been named Ms. Wheelchair Wyoming and will compete in July against a group of similarly disabled women at the Ms. Wheelchair USA pageant in Ohio.
A Wyoming native, Hendricks was born in Buffalo and lived in Story before moving to Sheridan at the age of 9.
She was not, however, born disabled. June 15 will mark the 11th anniversary of a life changing accident that made Hendricks a wheelchair user.
One night she was out Red Grade Road with three friends sharing a few drinks before they got in a car and headed back to town.
“The person that was driving was drunk and began going too fast going down the road and lost control of the car,” Hendricks said. “The other three in the car died on scene but, me, I lived. I am now a quadriplegic.”
Hendricks suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury with an injury level of C6/C7.
This means that she broke her neck but the cord was not completely severed and she has limited mobility and feeling below the injury line.
“Below the level of injury I have sporadic feeling,” she said. “I can feel if something is poking me but I wouldn’t be able to tell you if you were stabbing me or just poking me with a pen.”
She said she can wiggle her toes and lift her leg up a bit on the left side and has full use of her left hand. Her right hand does not work as well, with a loose grip and one finger that won’t bend but she still uses a manual wheelchair.
Before her accident, Hendricks worked for a privately owned preschool called Rise and Shine Academy. Not being wheelchair accessible, the accident forced her to reevaluate her place in life.
“I wasn’t sure what I would do,” she said. “But the accident gave me that opportunity to go back to school and begin working toward a degree.”
Hendricks received her Associate of Art from Sheridan College before enrolling in the University of Wyoming to study early childhood education.
All of her education came in handy when she welcomed to the world a daughter — who will celebrate her seventh birthday this weekend — and began homeschooling her.
Recently Hendricks began another new chapter of her life, being a spokeswoman and advocate for the causes near and dear to her.
After a woman she had met introduced Hendricks to her relative in Cody who was also a wheelchair user, Hendricks learned of the Ms. Wheelchair pageants.
“Her cousin went out for Ms. Wheelchair Wyoming last year and ended up winning Ms. Wheelchair USA,” she said. “I thought ‘I’m not really a pageant person,’ but after visiting with her over the phone and in person I realized it would be an opportunity to not only tell my story but also meet other people in similar situations to my own. I don’t think anyone can truely relate to it that isn’t in this situation, so I decided there was no harm in trying out.”
Hendricks put herself forward as a candidate and in May learned that she was chosen to represent Wyoming and become an advocate for awareness about drinking and driving.
“As a young adult, you feel that you are invincible but the choices you make have consequences,” she said. “I made the choice to get in a vehicle with someone who had been drinking and it changed my life forever. He also made the choice to drive friends home when he had been drinking and it ended his life.”
Hendricks hopes to not only spend her time of reign spreading awareness for her platform, but also for the pageant that was founded more than 15 years ago and yet many people have never heard of Ms. Wheelchair USA.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair for almost 11 years and even I didn’t know there was a pageant,” she said. “So I’m hoping to bring awareness that it’s out there to show people who are in wheelchairs that even though you are in a wheelchair you are still beautiful and you still have a voice.”
Right now her focus is on fundraising and finding sponsors to cover the cost of traveling and pageant entry fees.
All individuals and businesses who support her will be listed in the Ms. Wheelchair USA magazine as a sponsor and will help her to travel the state spreading awareness.
A rummage sale will be held at 17 N. Badger St. on June 20-21 benefitting her efforts and those interested in making a donation or being a sponsor can write to her at 418 Cat Creek, Sheridan, WY 82801.
As for the future, Hendricks has nothing but hope for more exciting new chapters to come.
She hopes to finish her bachelor’s program in both business and early childhood education, she hopes to continue raising her daughter and other youth to remember that it is OK to be different and finally she maintains hope that her body will continue to recover.
“As time has gone on I have regained some feeling throughout my body below my level of injury,” she said. “I have high hopes that I will continue to very slowly improve.”