RTE student and pageant queen empowers girls, women with disabilities
Mia Bennett, a student in the recreation, tourism & events program at FSU Panama City, believes everyone deserves to be a princess. In 2016, she founded Princesses of Paradise, a pageant that encourages young women with disabilities to feel unique and beautiful.
AN IDEA IS FORMED
At age 12, Mia wanted to be just like her big sister and compete in pageants. She decided to enter Junior Teen Miss Freeport in 2012, and to her surprise, won.
As Junior Teen Miss Freeport, Bennett participated in the 4th of July parade in Seaside, Fla., where a young girl with disabilities made a lasting impression on her.
“She tugged on my dress, looked at my crown and with tears in her eyes told me how badly she wanted to be a princess too,” Bennett said. “From that day forward, I realized that not every woman feels like the princess that they truly are.”
It was then that an idea began to form. “I was too young at the time to act on it,” she recalled. “I needed to be older, to have more resources.”
Fast forward four years to 2016. Bennett was preparing to compete for Miss Northwest Florida and community service was one of the requirements of the competition. Other participants volunteered at food pantries or collected trash off roadways, but Bennett knew she wanted to do something different. She was older, had gained more experience and believed it was the right time to create an event empowering females of all backgrounds, ages and abilities.
A DREAM BECOMES REALITY
Princesses of Paradise, a pageant exclusively for girls and women with cognitive and physical disabilities, was born.
The pageant was specially formatted to give each contestant a crown and sash with their own distinct title. Like other pageants, the event includes a beauty walk and an optional interview. The competition aspect has been removed and every contestant receives an award.
“The goal is to build the participants’ self-esteem by showing them that all women are princesses in their own way,” Bennett said. “Being in pageants has given me so much confidence and that is something I want my contestants to experience, along with a night to remember for the rest of their lives.”
The inaugural event was held at South Walton High School May 2016 and had seven contestants, many of whom have returned as loyal princesses in the pageants to follow.
One of her favorite parts of the pageant is the “Best Part of Me” segment. Participants are encouraged to showcase something that they love, or feel makes them unique, whether it is displaying a love of cooking or Disney movies. Another favorite is the crowning ceremony.
“I love the end during the crowning ceremony and seeing it all come together,” she said. “I just want to give them a really incredible night to remember.”
She put together the first Princesses of Paradise pageant with no budget and only her pageant coaches and supportive parents, Grace and Duncan, assisted.
“I had to learn a lot, and quickly,” she recalled. “Insurance, awards, music — I didn’t realize everything that was involved. But I continued to learn and improve each year.”
Bennett believes it’s the small touches that really make the event. She has spent hours finding the best quality crowns and sashes for the winners, handwriting cards to each participant and decorating — including making dozens of handcrafted flowers for the first pageant.
A PAGEANT AT RISK
After three successful years, multiple factors threatened the pageant. A lack of resources due to Hurricane Michael, an inability to find a venue and a full-time course load at FSU Panama City forced Bennett to face the very real possibility of discontinuing the pageant.
But a chance encounter with one of her former contestants encouraged her to persevere.
Born with cogitative impairments that could affect memory, the young girl immediately remembered Bennett and her time in last year’s pageant.
“She was so excited,” Bennett said. “She wanted to know when the next one was so she could participate. I knew then that I had to figure out a way to keep it going.”
But Bennett also knew she couldn’t do it all on her own. She decided to start by reaching out to FSU Panama City Assistant Dean Irvin Clark, her faculty in the recreation, tourism & events department and campus staff for help and advice.
“Everyone here has been so supportive,” Bennett said. “The staff, my teachers, and the dean all jumped right in to make sure that event would continue.”
A CAMPUS COMES TOGETHER
The Holley Lecture Hall at FSU Panama City was reserved, the date set, and now the pageant is well on its way with a campus committed to doing everything in their power to support the event.
“Everyone at FSU Panama City is committed to serving our students and the community, and Mia’s event is such a champion for diversity and inclusion that I knew we had to help,” Clark said. “With faculty, staff and students behind her, I know she will be able to take the event to even more deserving princesses.”
“I want this year’s pageant to be the biggest it can possibly be,” Bennett said. She encourages everyone to attend, whether you know a participant or not, and help put a smile on a contestant’s face.
“I have taken all the experiences I’ve gained with Princesses of Paradise and applied it to my studies,” she said. “I’m gaining the knowledge to know why I take the steps I do to plan an event and the tools to make it even better.”
“Everything is so cut and dry when you read things in a textbook,” Bennett said. “But when you have professors that offer so much knowledge from their experiences in the field, you can draw from their experiences. They have been hands-on and approachable.”
Faculty have provided advice and support for the Princesses of Paradise event, helping Bennett gain new perspectives and ideas.
“They have really helped me to broaden my horizons,” she said of her professors. “Not only have I learned so much about risk management, insurance and law — which is huge in the event industry — but more importantly, they helped me learn how to build a team and not just be a one-woman show.”
“Watching Mia progress through the recreation, tourism & events major and certificate in special events program is personally rewarding,” said Rosemary Prince, special events teaching faculty. “Her willingness to seek and accept feedback, and expand her knowledge, combined with her dedication and passion for working with people will serve her well throughout her career.”
With plans to graduate in May 2020, Bennett wants to plan large-scale events.
“I don’t know what the future holds for the pageant,” she said. “But I know that I want it to continue to grow. I’d love to create a franchise where groups in other areas of the state and country could form their own Princesses of Paradise pageants. The ultimate dream would be to create a special needs version of Miss America.”
“I want to continue to be a role model for young girls and to promote the idea that beauty is in our individuality.”
Princesses of Paradise will be held Saturday, Nov. 16, at FSU Panama City. For more information, visit princessesofparadise.com.