ST. CHARLES — Karen Swartz decided she didn't want to remain in her house for the rest of her life.
It could have been easy to stay home as she was confined to a wheelchair.
Fifteen years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but the physical effects began to show six years ago. A full-time job was now exhausting and impossible. And it was hard for her even to be out in public.
"I remember how scared it was to go out," said Swartz, 47, of St. Charles. "You would stay in the house."
But Swartz came to realize that staying shut off from the world wasn't an option. Fast forward several years, and Swartz, now a tutor and community volunteer, was first runner-up in the recent 2011 Ms. Wheelchair USA competition.
Swartz, already Ms. Wheelchair Missouri for 2011, competed with 15 other women for the title July 23 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. She finished behind Sara Keedy, 19, of West Virginia.
Ms Wheelchair USA is one of three major national pageant competitions in the United States for women with disabilities. Contestants participate in private interviews, an evening wear competition, a platform presentation and an on-stage interview. A panel of judges determines the national title.
Swartz didn't come home with a new car or lots of prize money. Family and donors helped her pay expenses to enter the competition.
The pageant did provide something she wanted — a place to espouse her views on helping others. "I got what I was looking for," she said.
Critical in the competition was each contestant's platform — their positions on issues affecting women.
Swartz's platform involves encouraging an active lifestyle for people with disabilities. For her, achieving that lifestyle wasn't easy.
Before the onset of MS, she had an active career in marketing and administration, including a stint with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s. She retired six years ago as director of operations for an architectural firm in St. Charles.
Her disease leaves her exhausted and unable to work. Two years ago, her stay at home was punctuated by emergency surgery. Every time she got a handle on her health she thought something else would go wrong. But she realized that becoming active helped her physically and emotionally.
Slowly she started swimming, then volunteered as a tutor in St. Charles schools for Oasis, a national nonprofit organization, and took a class at St. Charles Community College. She used the feeling she got when she worked out, went to the grocery store or had lunch with a friend to motivate her.
"I know what it feels like to want to shut out the world and also how wonderful it is to feel like a contributing member of society," she wrote in her personal platform statement on her website.
She decided that rather than "reinvent the wheel(chair)" and start another organization, she would became an active volunteer.
Swartz said recently that the pageant provides inspiration. Even for some of the contestants, the pageant provided examples of active women who were dealing with their disabilities in a positive way, she said.
"One of the contestants actually cried; it really opened her eyes to what she could do," she said.
That potential still exists for Swartz. She's active with the Multiple Sclerosis Society and an organization called Deliver a Smile that serves individuals with MS who are homebound or living in long-term care facilities.
She plans to continue tutoring, but her focus might shift to working with people in assisted living situations who often are isolated and don't get a chance to get out.
"To have someone there to talk to them and to hear someone's life story just makes such a difference in their lives," she said.