Millie Gonzalez, an adult with Spina Bifida, has been involved with SBA for many years and is Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey 2019. In July, after several months of putting her platform #LifeFiercely through Self-Care into action, she traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to compete for Ms. Wheelchair America, where she placed as the 4th runner up.
Millie has been a longtime advocate for the Spina Bifida community and the disability community at-large on a local and national level. For the past decade, she has organized an annual retreat for adults with disabilities. She also currently serves as the board chairperson for her local Spina Bifida organization and is the vice-chairperson of the board for a local Center for Independent Living. In addition, Millie helped organize NJ’s first Disability Pride Parade, and is the co-emcee of the annual event, and coordinates an annual disability film festival.
Millie decided to pursue the Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey title to elevate the advocacy work she had already been doing but on a much larger scale. She believes that her ongoing advocacy work has strengthened her Ms. Wheelchair journey. Millie’s previous experience helped her to identify the needs of the disability community so that she could hone in on her platform.
“Being Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey 2019 has given me an even greater arena in which to share my platform, improve disability awareness and encourage people with disabilities to #LiveFiercely through Self-Care. I really enjoy advocacy, but recognize it can be exhausting, and we need to take care of ourselves, too,” she said.
As Millie’s reign as Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey 2019 comes to a close in November, her experience — and her impact — have been nothing short of incredible. She has traveled all over the state of New Jersey to spread her message and has even ventured to New York City for several initiatives, including a visit to the United Nations for International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Millie’s efforts have definitely not gone unnoticed. During her reign, she was recognized by the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders for her advocacy, and has been invited to participate in events and initiatives, big and small. Highlights of her experience of serving as Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey 2019 include meeting NJ Governor Phil Murphy and Senator Bob Menendez, and the incredible interactions she’s had with hundreds of children .
“Children are so curious and ask great questions. They have no prejudices,” she said. “It’s also powerful when a student raises their hand or stays after your presentation to identify as someone with a disability, and to thank you for telling everyone that it’s OK to be disabled. Not to mention the sweet moments when a child asks if you’re a princess, and you realize all they see is your sash and crown.”
As Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey 2019, Millie’s platform has helped her focus on the community around her and what their specific needs are. Her platform of #LiveFiercely through Self-Care, which she took with her to the national competition, focuses mainly on health and wellness, emergency preparedness and civic engagement.
She was inspired to choose this platform because she turned 40 shortly before the state competition and a friend urged her to “be fierce at 40.” She wanted to reinforce that living fiercely was not only about working hard, but also about listening to our bodies and taking care of ourselves. According to Millie, to #LiveFiercely means focusing on self-care in a holistic way in terms of mind, body, and spirit. Throughout her reign, Millie had to take breaks to focus on her own health and wellness in order to continue to be a positive example of the message she was working so hard to share with others. .
Millie also maintains that advocacy is a very important element to achieving self-care.
“Talking to lawmakers is where some of our greatest power exists. When we advocate for ourselves, we are ensuring we have the rights, equipment and services we need to survive and to live our best lives,” she said.
Millie has a specific set of goals during her reign that she needed to meet, including the populations she spoke to and fully engaging in the community. She feels like she’s exceeded expectations in some ways, but says that even once her reign ends, her advocacy work will not be done. Millie is going to continue advocating for people with disabilities to live full, healthy, and safe lives that bring them joy.
“Our collective work in creating an accessible and inclusive world is far from over. Whether we do it from home or on The Hill, we need to continue to advocate, remembering to #LiveFiercely in the process,” she said.
Much like her experience at the local level, Millie’s experience at the Ms. Wheelchair America competition was one she will never forget. The week started with an orientation, where contestants first met the judges and the board of Ms. Wheelchair America. A series of workshops were held throughout the week to better prepare contestants to continue their advocacy work long after the end of the competition. In addition to the competitive aspects of the week, there were also social activities like theme nights, a trip to a museum, and a July 4th celebration. Toward the end of the week, the competition culminated with speech night and the crowning ceremony. This was one of Millie’s favorite aspects because it gave her a chance to hear each of the other women speak publicly about their platform and their diverse goals. Through it all, Millie bonded with the other women and embraced the unique sisterhood that only those who experience Ms. Wheelchair America can truly appreciate.
“The national competition was a phenomenal experience. To be able to meet dozens of female wheelchair users from across the country who are doing great work in their communities was a tremendous gift. They are all interested in increasing positive disability awareness and in advocating for their unique platforms in a multitude of ways. There’s no doubt that the Ms. Wheelchair program and the work each of us are doing is much bigger than ourselves,” she said.
Millie was honored to have made the top 5 in the competition, which is based on leadership and advocacy. According to her, all of the women who competed would have done an incredible job as Ms. Wheelchair America.
“I was completely stunned and humbled that I was chosen to be in the top 5. I was so proud to represent people with disabilities and the state of New Jersey in a way that the judges deemed worthy of selecting me. Since coming back home, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the impact that the woman chosen as Ms. Wheelchair America 2020, Hilary Muehlberger, has been making, and I encourage everyone to follow her journey on social media.”
For any women considering entering the Ms. Wheelchair America competition in their state, Millie urges you to connect with your state coordinator and speak to people who have been through the program so you fully understand what is expected of you.
“Being Ms. Wheelchair is more than just a fancy title,” Millie said. “It’s a tremendous responsibility and a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to affect significant change in our community––with the added influence that comes with rocking a sash and crown.”