Chelsea Tobin, Miss Deaf America 2006-2008, grew up on a farm in rural South Dakota. Her sparkling eyes and contagious smile are equal only to her enthusiasm and dedication to growing within, while serving others. I get my information first hand: I’ve worked with her over the last four years.
The day I met her, I entered the counselor’s office at her Pierpont, South Dakota, high school, eager to put a face to the name of this girl who had applied to take part in our state’s Youth Leadership Forum (YLF). The week-long, state-wide training program is for students, ages 15-21, who have disabilities. Within moments of her entering the room, Chelsea’s charisma, maturity, and zest for life were branded on my memory. Of course we welcomed her into the program.
During the training, she seemed to naturally absorb the information we covered, including education, employment, self-advocacy, and community-service. She also began to incorporate the life skills we taught her into her daily routine. A year later, she returned to the YLF program to serve as a team leader to her peers. And the year after that, she took on the role of Master of Ceremonies for the whole, weeklong session.
She’s shown leadership qualities in other areas as well, serving as a page for the South Dakota State Legislature, and, as she moved on to college, contributing to the advanced institute of the National Youth Leadership Network. Then Chelsea took the bold step of participating in the Miss Deaf South Dakota competition—and won.
“I realized by my senior year in high school that I could participate in the Miss Deaf South Dakota competition, and possibly even in Miss Deaf America,” Chelsea says. “And since I was taught to seize every opportunity, I realized that these were just that.”
While she participated in the national Miss Deaf America program, a two-week event, held in Palm Desert, California, her hometown fans eagerly opened her email updates, chocked full of photos and snippets of stories she would tell us in full upon her return. The closer to the final competition, the more the hometown enthusiasm mounted. And when the final votes were tallied, Chelsea’s fans were ecstatic. Once again, she walked away with the crown, and an opportunity to serve an even larger community.
As Miss Deaf America, Chelsea is the ambassador for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which represents about 28 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals across the country. She takes part in questionand-answer sessions; offers welcoming remarks at NAD events; presents awards at its ceremonies and judges its talent performances at competitions. (Chelsea’s own performance art includes theatrical interpretations of Dr. Seuss rhymes in American Sign Language). She also offers workshops around her favorite topic.
“My platform is ‘Vanquishing Audism,’” Chelsea says, referring to the term given by the Deaf Community to acts of discrimination that take place due to someone’s hearing loss and/or deafness. “I wanted to choose something that directly affects the Deaf Community.” She talks to classrooms with as few as 30 students, to conference centers of 300 people or more, and, she says, “I always include the importance of self-advocacy. One’s personal actions can have a huge and powerful effect in combating discrimination in today’s society.”
In late 2006, Chelsea studied at Washington DC’s Gallaudet University, a liberal-arts college that specializes in deaf culture. The credits she earned there will be applied towards her Bachelor’s degree in Deaf Education with Early Childhood Certification from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she is currently a sophomore. At this writing, she was doing an internship at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota, and credits earned there will also be applied to her Bachelor’s. Ultimately, her goal is to serve as an outreach consultant for the South Dakota Department of State, serving families with a deaf child or deaf children.
“After that, the sky is the limit,” she said. “We are so lucky as young people today. There are so many opportunities and so many possibilities out there. I am excited to see what life throws at me.”
by Betsy Valnes
For more about the leadership opportunities mentioned above:
Association of Youth Leadership Forums, www.montanaylf.org (For the link to the association, look toward the bottom of the lefthand column.) Youth Leadership Forums (YLFs) are state-specific leadership programs for high school-age students with disabilities.
National Youth Leadership Network, www.nyln.org The National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN) is a nation-wide, youth-led, non-profit organization for young people with disabilities between the ages of 16 and 28.
National Association of the Deaf/Miss Deaf American Program, www.nad.org/mda. The Miss Deaf America Program is a bi-annual leadership competition for young women who are deaf or hardof-hearing.
Gallaudet University, www.gallaudet.edu, is a liberal-arts college in Washington DC. It provides Bachelor’s and graduate programs for deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing students.
Betsy Valnes has traumatic brain injury and anomia. She is an active member of the disability movement both in the United States and abroad. She serves as the executive director for the National Youth Leadership Network (NYLN) and the National Youth Information Center (NYIC). NYLN and NYIC represent the first solely youth-led nonprofit organization and federally supported alliance of organizations for young leaders with disabilities in the U.S. and its territories. She also serves as a mentor for the National Council on Disability’s Youth Advisory Committee.