Miss Michigan defies chronic illness, uses story to inspire Eagle Village residents

HERSEY – By simply standing in front of 35 children gathered at Eagle Village, Elizabeth Wertenberger was defying the odds.

After being diagnosed at age 13 with advanced juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, doctors told Wertenberger she shouldn’t be able to walk. They unsuccessfully tried numerous treatments, including chemotheraphy when she was 14, and said the arthritis would most likely never go into remission.

Eight arthritis-free years later, Wertenberger, 22, did more than simply stand at the front of Eagle Village’s Lighthouse Chapel on Tuesday. She shared with the children her experiences as Miss Michigan 2011, living proof of her message to never stop dreaming, she said.

“So many people are faced with different adversities and challenges every day, and it’s all about how you handle it,” Wertenberger told her captive audience. “Just because somebody tells you you can’t do something doesn’t mean it’s not possible.”

After being crowned on June 18, Wertenberger has spent her time promoting her platform of encouraging children with chronic illnesses. Every candidate in Miss America pageants has a different community service platform.

While the children of Eagle Village – which hosts a residential program for youth, ages 11 to 17, who struggle with emotional or behavioral issues – are not necessarily chronically ill, they do know what it’s like to face adversity. Lisa Spaugh, Eagle Village marketing director, and Shelley Taylor, executive director of the Miss Michigan scholarship program, partnered to bring Wertenberger, the third Miss Michigan to speak at Eagle Village, to share her inspiration story with the residents.

“Depending on the Miss Michigan, many of them come from challenged backgrounds,” Spaugh said. “In being able to talk to kids with the same background ... the inspiration factor is incredible.”

Wertenberger, from Dundee, entered the pageant world at age 9. She stayed involved for the scholarship opportunities and the “Miss” program’s emphasis on community service.

Although she wasn’t diagnosed for 10 years, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis started causing her pain at age 3. Wertenberger’s passion was dance, which she continued even though doctors said it could have been contributing to the pain in her joints.

Ultimately, it was dance that kept her in shape enough to battle the advanced arthritis and preserve her quality of life. Dance also was a factor in earning her Miss Michigan crown, after she performed a musical theater jazz piece for the talent portion of the competition.

In 2008, Wertenberger took third runner-up in the Miss Michigan pageant. She then left the pageant world for a year to focus on school – attending Kendall College of Art and Design to pursue a degree in interior design – but decided to try once more for the Miss Michigan title.

This summer brought the realization of her pageant goals, and she is looking forward to the new opportunities that come with the crown.

“This gives me a voice. It gives me a stage to talk about what matters,” she said.

Sammie, 15, an Eagle Village resident, found Wertenberger’s presentation interesting.

“It was nice (to hear her story, and) the fact that she’s went through things in her life,” said Sammie, who’s favorite part of meeting Miss Michigan was getting to try on the crown.

Wertenberger will now go on to compete in the Miss America pageant on Jan. 14 in Las Vegas. Similar to the Miss Michigan pageant, contestants will complete an interview with the judges, perform a talent, model an evening gown and swimsuit and answer an on-stage question.

The Miss Michigan title comes with an $11,000 scholarship. More than $40 million in cash and scholarships is awarded through the Miss America Organization, the leading provider of scholarships for young women in the world.