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A ‘real surprise’: Teacher wins both Ms. Congeniality and Ms. Wheelchair Illinois

Kimberly Brown wipes away tears after being named Ms. Wheelchair Illinois on Saturday. (Jeff Vorva/Tribune)

Kimberly Brown wipes away tears after being named Ms. Wheelchair Illinois on Saturday. (Jeff Vorva/Tribune)

After winning the Ms. Congeniality Award, Kimberly Brown figured she had no shot at winning Ms. Wheelchair Illinois.
Most contests use that award as a consolation prize.

But this was no ordinary contest. Brown, an Oak Lawn resident, couldn’t believe that a few minutes later, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Illinois Saturday at the Wingate by Wyndam Hotel in Tinley Park. She will compete in the Ms. Wheelchair America contest in Rhode Island, August 6-12.

Naperville's Cami Smith, a Downers Grove South graduate, was a runnerup. (Jeff Vorva/Tribune)

“When I won Ms. Congeniality and heard the speeches of the other contestants, I thought, I don’t have a chance,” Brown said. “So this was a real surprise.”

Ms. Congeniality was voted on by her fellow contestants while the regular judging was done by Provena St. Joseph Hospital therapist Erin Barton and Palos Community Hospital therapist David Gottschammer and Anna Macarayo.

Aurora's Penny Johnson gives a speech during the Ms. Wheelchair Illinois contest. (Jeff Vorva/Tribune)

Brown, 38, graduated from Mother McAuley High School and received degrees from St. Xavier University and Concordia University. She was diagnosed with spina bifida at birth and is a longtime teacher in the Chicago public school system.

“When I was born with spina bifida, I didn’t let that stop me,” Brown said. “I have two master’s degrees and I’m a wheelchair tennis athlete. I would like to work with legislators, teachers and different members of organizations and business leaders to break down the architectural and attitudinal barriers for people with physical challenges.”

She beat out three other contestants for the honor.

Jill Wesselhoff of Island Lake was the first runner-up in the contest. (Jeff Vorva/Tribune)

Naperville’s Cami Smith, a graduate of Downers Grove South, Aurora’s Penny Johnson, a consultant for Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Island Lake’s Jill Wesselhoff, a jewelry designer who graduated from McHenry County College, were runners-up.

Contest organizer Pam LaPorte said Ms. Wheelchair Illinois is growing and may consider moving it to the Tinley Park Convention Center in 2013.

Before that, she has high hopes for Brown later this year.

“The Ms. Wheelchair America contest has been going on for 40 years and no one from Illinois has won,” she said. “That could change this year.”

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