Taking center stage: Izzy Gonzalez becomes an ambassador for girls with disabilities in a beauty competition

Izzy Gonzalez stood tall and fearless as she looked into the crowd and accepted her Illinois Miss Amazing Jr. Teen award at the Yellow Box, a community church in Naperville, in April.

"I like being on stage," she said.

The annual event champions nearly 50 girls who have developmental or physical disabilities and crowns each of them as princesses. Six of the girls, who are ages 5 or older, are crowned as year-long representatives for the organization, and Izzy was one of them.

"It honestly is fun," she said.

Illinois Miss Amazing Director Jess Harnish said the event helps the girls build leadership and volunteerism skills and offers an opportunity for them to step out into the community.

"The girls aren't judged against each other," Harnish said. "They (the judges) look for personal growth. We have an emphasis on girls who volunteer in the community and have confidence."

The event includes a talent show on Friday evening, followed by interviews on Saturday. The highlight of Saturday evening is the stage event, where the girls walk out in dresses and makeup. Each girl is paired with a buddy who helps her navigate her way throughout the weekend.

Filled with fun and light-heartedness, the event provides Izzy an outlet from the daily physical barriers she faces. The 14-year-old has VATER Syndrome, which her father, David Gonzalez, described as various parts of her body that did not develop when she was in the womb.

"Her main thing right now is scoliosis," he said. "She has scoliosis, which is kind of pushing on her trachea, so her trachea is starting to close down a little."

"My lung is being crushed by my ribs," Izzy added.

The soon-to-be Mahomet-Seymour freshman was also diagnosed with epilepsy three years ago and has lost her hearing in her right ear.

"So because she doesn't have the nerves going up her spinal cord, it's also affected different areas," David said. "She doesn't have bladder control because she doesn't have the nerves."

But Izzy doesn't let her physical disabilities stop her from accomplishing her goals.

For the last two years, she's also performed in the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company's Penguin Project, which is a theater program for youths ages 12 to 21 who have developmental or physical disabilities.

"The whole idea is to get everybody on stage regardless of whatever skill level they have," David said.

Each actor is paired with a mentor who shadows them in their role, guiding them as needed.

"The mentors are understudies," said Kelly Nowlin, executive director of CUTC. "They learn all of the blocking and parts and they're only there if their artist needs help or a prompt. The kids who have disabilities are the stars."

The experience helps Izzy break barriers and step on stage. David credited the experience as a confidence builder for his daughter.

"Being a special-needs kid, there's a lot of times that she's not able to go to school on a regular basis," he said. "What happens is she doesn't have as many friends or as much connection to the social world as other kids have. But with Miss Amazing and the Penguin Project, she's able to have that on a regular basis."

Twenty-seven artists were paired with 32 mentors during last year's performance of "Mulan Jr." Izzy enjoyed her role as Qain Po, a soldier, in the musical and was the Genie in the performance of "Aladdin Jr." This year, she is excited for the Sept. 21-23 performances of "High School Musical Jr."

Acting in the productions provides Izzy unmatched social opportunities with her peers.

"Friends-wise, I just make a lot of friends my age," she said. "It's like, 'Whoa! I'm capable of making friends.'"

Nowlin recalled the bond Izzy made with her one of her mentors, Elana Loinstene. When Izzy had to be in the hospital and was unable to attend a rehearsal, Loinstene and Izzy Facetimed one another as a way to keep connected.

"Elana had her iPad, and they were Facetiming during the rehearsal, and Izzy was singing as Elana was doing the blocking," Nowlin said.

Through these experiences, Izzy has discovered her passion and gained other opportunities, such as being cast as a lead in a web series taking place in June through the University of Illinois' physics department.

"It's like 'Stranger Things' mixed with 'The Goonies,'" she said. "It's teaching science to kids in schools around the area. I hope I do a good job."

After her summer acting opportunities, Izzy will travel to Rosemont from Aug. 3-6 to represent Illinois Miss Amazing in its national event, where girls from all over the country gather to represent their states.

"She's kind of an ambassador right now, so she's going around to these different places and talking to people and introducing what Miss Amazing is all about," David said.

Izzy and her family are tasked with raising $2,500 for evening attire, lodging, meals and travel expenses for the show. The family will host its next fundraising event at Red Robin in Champaign on June 6 from 5-9 p.m.

David said what is unique about the fundraising is after the funds are raised, any remaining funds go back into Miss Amazing to help next year's representatives with costs to attend nationals.

Experiences such as Illinois Miss Amazing and the Penguin Project have inspired Izzy to continue her on-stage performances.

"From the first play, I thought this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," she said. "I cry at the end of every show."

Wise beyond her years, the young performer sees the importance of such opportunities and values them for both she and her friends alike.

"Because we are actually reserved individuals, it helps bring us out of our shells and it's just ... well, it's amazing," Izzy said. "In 'Aladdin,' these were some of the shyest individuals, but at the end when tech week came, people just came out of their shell and we were just belting it out honestly," she added. "It helps bring us out of our shells. It really does."

Those interested in learning more about Izzy's cause may visit donate.missamazing.org/fundraiser/1397865.

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