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Aug 21, 2012 3:42 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Miss Exceptional Pageant Aims To Empower Girls With Disabilities

Aug 21, 2012 4:40 PM

Extending her leg gracefully behind her, Corina Lombardi of East Quogue showed off her newly acquired salsa dance moves at the Dance Centre of the Hamptons last Friday. Corina, 19, has high-functioning autism and will be performing and competing, along with other young women with disabilities, in the inaugural Miss Exceptional Hamptons Beauty Pageant on Wednesday, August 29, at Southampton High School.

Still in the works, the pageant will be a “no stress” event open to any girl with special needs who wants to participate; organizers hope to have at least four girls entered in the pageant. Although the young women will be judged on formal wear, self-presentation and personality, all will be crowned “Miss Exceptional,” according to organizers. Depending on the turnout and the amount raised from raffles and donations, each girl will also be presented with a check for an equal amount of money that they will donate to the charity of their choice.

The pageant is the brainchild of 18-year-old Nikki Silva, who is passionate about promoting self-esteem in girls who struggle with disabilities. Ms. Silva, who lives in East Quogue, is personally affected by autism herself; Corina is the sister of her boyfriend, Nico Lombardi.

“Every single girl is beautiful and deserves to feel beautiful,” Ms. Silva said. “It’s all about them.”

Corina, who is the only contestant hailing from the Hamptons, said she is excited about the pageant, describing it as the “best day ever,” and has been taking salsa lessons at the Arthur Murray International Dance Studio in Southampton in preparation.

“She sings, she dances, she does it all,” her 21-year-old brother, Nico, said. Although the salsa lessons are a new thing for her, Corina is always performing in some way, he said.

“She’ll have Barry Manilow performing live, playing in her room and Enya blasting at the same time, and she’ll be standing on her bed performing,” he said, smiling.

Diagnosed with autism when she was 18 months old, Corina has not led a sheltered life, according to her mother, Christine Box.

“The more exposure they have, the more it opens up their world,” she said on Friday. “Sheltering them doesn’t do them any justice.”

Corina has traveled everywhere with her mother, including Costa Rica, where she was invited up on stage during a musical performance that she loved.

Once again returning to the stage, Corina will perform an opening dance number to the song “I Believe” by Yolanda Adams with girls from the Dance Centre and three other pageant contestants: 15-year-old Brittany Wohl from Northport, who is also autistic, and two girls from Independent Group Home Living in Manorville. Their names have not yet been added to the pageant roster, Ms. Silva said on Tuesday.

Brittany, who does not speak and communicates through a computer, is excited about the pageant and has been trying on dresses, her mother, Stacey Schultz Wohl, said this week. Hoping to provide an after-school program for those with special needs, Ms. Wohl set up a charity called “Our Own Place” and hopes to educate the community about her efforts.

“I want to try to raise awareness about the charity and to bring Brittany back into the community to try to be a role model or example for people with autism,” Ms. Wohl said. She said she plans on using the prize money to help get the program off the ground, as well as to fund a documentary called “The Joy of Autism” that she recently began filming.

Ms. Box said Corina will donate her prize money to East End Disability Associates, which provides services for those with developmental disabilities.

According to Ms. Silva, representatives from each charity or non-profit will speak about their efforts following the crowning, and a handful of Southampton Village businesses have agreed to sponsor the event and offer items for a 50/50 raffle and silent auction.

The girls’ performances will be judged by 2012 Miss Long Island Runner Up April Maroshick of Valley Stream, Ms. Silva’s father, Dean Silva, and a third judge still to be named. Organizers said that details will solidify as they get closer to the big event.

As the pageant date grows closer, Corina’s family is helping her prepare for the day by encouraging her to dance.

“I want her to feel like it’s her event,” Ms. Box said. “It’s worth every moment. I get so much joy in the things she comes out with. She’s my gift.”

The pageant starts at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, August 29, at Southampton High School. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children and seniors, and can be purchased at the door.

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