Not long ago, my 18-year-old daughter had surgery at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minn., the nation's oldest hospital for children with disabilities. Greeting her bedside there was Miss Minnesota 2013, Rebecca Yeh, of Niffwa, Minn.
Besides her duties as Miss Minnesota, which include visits to Children's Miracle Network affiliate Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare, Yeh over the next year will be an ambassador for Autism Speaks, the nation's leading autism science and advocacy organization.
Yeh's older brother Philip has an autism spectrum disorder. Said 20-year-old Yeh in a telephone interview, "Phil was diagnosed with autism at age 4. While growing up, at first, I didn't realize he was different, but definitely in elementary school I began seeing the differences between us and between Phil and his peers. I began seeing he struggled interacting with others, communicating his ideas, understanding body language, and being able to understand humor."
In middle school, for example, Phil really enjoyed shaking hands and hugging people, but often his female friends felt uncomfortable being hugged. And he couldn't understand why they felt uncomfortable.
Said Rebecca, "Also, Phil is very good at making animal calls with his own voice. When he's out turkey hunting, he likes making turkey calls. And so at school he would randomly do this turkey call. In addition, he would sometimes talk his thoughts out loud. It was on things like that other kids would pick up on and think he was a little strange at times."
Yeh became Miss Minnesota on June 15, and since then has been on a "whirlwind" throughout her state while being an advocate for people with autism. She will be competing in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City on Sept. 15, 2013, on ABC television. Yeh has played the violin since age 4, and over the years has played at weddings and funerals and for many charities.
She said, "Up until Sept. 15, I will be preparing for the (pageant), doing a lot of public speaking, and getting ready physically. When you win a title like Miss Minnesota, many times people will say you need to be better at this or that or walk or talk differently. But what it boils down to for me is being myself."
For more stories of courage in disability, visit www.danieljvance .com or find them on Facebook at "Disabilities By Daniel J. Vance." LittleGiantFudge.com and Palmer Bus Service made this column possible.