When the 25 or so contestants take the stage to perform various talents late this summer at the fifth annual “I Am Me” special needs pageant, the young woman in charge, 16-year-old Lindsey Pearlman, will be the one laughing, crying and cheering at the back.
“I’m so emotional,” Pearlman confesses, “I can’t contain it—it’s just such joy to see these young people get up there and shine.”
A junior at Lake Forest Academy, Lindsey launched the” I Am Me” pageant five years ago, just one of the volunteer efforts she regularly undertakes to support special needs children.
“It’s really more of a talent show and opportunity for these young people to celebrate who they each are,” says Pearlman, who plans, promotes, fundraises for, and hosts the event at the Vernon Hills Park District each year. “People hear the word “pageant” and they automatically think it’s about how people look on the outside. But this event—and the pageants I am a part of—are much more about who you are as a person, not what you look like. Participating builds confidence, skills and friendships.”
Currently Illinois’ International Junior Miss Teen, Lindsey Pearlman knows about this firsthand.
“When I was a little girl I was painfully shy and afraid to get up in front of a large group of people,” she recalls. “But I saw a flier about a pageant at a mall and somehow it appealed to me, so I tried it.”
Lindsey’s mom Joey, who herself had competed in pageants as a young woman, allowed her daughter to participate, “I think because she knew that doing this would help me come out of my shell,” Lindsey muses.
“It really has done that,” she adds. “The pageants I participate in are not these glitzy, looks-based things. They are much more about community involvement, confidence, and the pursuit of life goals. As a result of doing this, I’m certainly not shy any more. And it’s really helped me develop the path I’m on.”
That path includes Lindsey’s decision to attend Lake Forest Academy for her high school years, in the hopes that the rigorous program would help her toward her dream of attending the University of Southern California to study physical therapy, with a focus on serving special needs populations.
“It’s pretty cool how everything comes together,” Lindsey reflects. “During my freshman year, I had the opportunity to visit Ghana, Africa, to work with special needs children, some of whom were in wheel chairs or had prosthetics. I think that sparked my interest in physical therapy as a future career.”
But Lindsey’s passion for working with special needs populations actually started when she was 8 years old.
“My mom was part of the Lexi Kazian Foundation, an organization started by Kristy and Kris Kazian to help provide quality life-enhancing experiences for special needs children,” Lindsey explains.
Tagging along to a stuffed animal donation event at the local firehouse, Lindsey says she had such a good time, she began volunteering more. “I just really enjoyed doing things with and for these kids … taking groups to movies, helping out with swim days at the YMCA all of it,” she recalls.
The idea to channel her own skills and experience by creating the “I Am Me” pageant just happened naturally.
“It’s open to anyone who wants to participate,” Lindsey explains. “Everyone gets a trophy, an “I Am Me” banner, and a tiara or crown at the end. My goal has always been to make it as easy as possible for the family and participant to perform their talent.”
The talent can be anything from walking across the stage, to bouncing a ball, to performing a song. Steven, for example, a 6’ 4’’ young singer, has participated in the event every year since its inception.
“Just watching him and seeing how he has progressed in his confidence each year is so gratifying,” Lindsey concludes. “It makes all of this so worthwhile.”