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Samantha Moreno of Marietta, a graduate student at East Central University, has been crowned Ms. Wheelchair Oklahoma and will compete in the national competition for Ms. Wheelchair America next summer in Long Beach, Calif.

She was crowned in Tahlequah and will hold the state title until the fall of 2011. During her reign, Moreno will travel across the state, visit advocacy groups, conduct interviews and raise awareness about the need to eliminate architectural and perceptual barriers.

Samantha Moreno of Marietta, a graduate student at East Central University, is the new Ms. Wheelchair Oklahoma. She will compete for the national title next summer in Long Beach, California.
Samantha Moreno of Marietta, a graduate student at East Central University, is the new Ms. Wheelchair Oklahoma. She will compete for the national title next summer in Long Beach, California.

The Ms. Wheelchair programs provide an opportunity for women of achievement who happen to be wheelchair users to educate and advocate for the more than 52 million Americans living with disabilities. The national competition is based on advocacy, achievement, communication and presentation to select the most accomplished and articulate spokeswoman for persons with disabilities.

"My slogan is 'Employment Equals Independence' -- how important it is for people with impairments to be employed, or to seek employment," Moreno said. "I will raise awareness that people with impairments can be independent.

"My thing is pushing employment. That is a big part of making yourself independent."

Moreno, who was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 18 months, said she has always known she would go to college.

"Those were my goals -- to go to school and get a job," she said.

She didn't know where she would go to college until an ECU recruiter visited her high school in Marietta.

"He talked about how ECU was one of the first (schools in the state) in accessibility (for students with impairments). That sounded pretty good," she explained. "Then I took a tour of the ECU campus. It was really pretty. It was this time of the year. Everyone was really nice.

"ECU is big enough to meet people and small enough not to get lost," she added. "It was pretty much perfect."

Moreno actually graduated from Murray State College before coming to ECU in 2004. Last May she completed a bachelor's degree in human services counseling and now is working toward a master's degree in human resources/rehabilitation counseling. She wants to help people with impairments become independent through education and empowerment.

Moreno said she was encouraged to apply for Ms. Wheelchair Ada by a friend who was the previous Ms. Wheelchair Oklahoma. Oklahoma is the only state that has city titles in addition to the state title, Moreno said, which helps increase awareness of the organization. Other state cities represented are Norman, Shawnee, Stillwater, Tahlequah and Tulsa.

The program also crowned a Junior Miss Wheelchair Oklahoma for girls age 14 to 20 and a Little Miss Wheelchair Oklahoma for youngsters age 5 to 13.

For the state competition, Moreno was interviewed three times by three judges. They asked for her definition of advocacy and the kinds of advocacy she does in her community. She gave her platform speech and, after the scores were tallied, she was the winner.

"It was pretty special," she said.

Part of her duties will be to find another Ms. Wheelchair Ada to replace her. Applicants must be between age 21 and 60, United States citizens and residents of Oklahoma for at least six months. They must use wheelchairs 100 percent of the time in public.

Most of the organization's activities have been held in the eastern part of the state but Moreno hopes to plan some events in Ada to get people in the western half more involved.

She also needs to raise about $1,500 to get her to the national competition in California.

At ECU, Moreno helped start the Black Thread Society, a new group of about eight students with physical impairments. Her sister Heather, an ECU student who also has spinal muscular atrophy, came up with the name after a friend wrote a paper describing how some families once dealt with babies born with physical disabilities.

A family who did not want, or could not care for, such a baby would tie a black thread around the baby's wrist or ankle and abandon the baby on the street. Anyone who came along and saw the black thread would know to leave the baby there, Moreno said.

"It was a symbol of the unwanted," she said. "We really liked the name because of the history. We still have a lot of work to do, but we've come a long way from that."

During Disability Awareness Month in October, the Black Thread Society blindfolded participants and conducted a Blind Walk to give them an opportunity to experience navigating the ECU campus as persons with visual impairments.

"Some people don't like to associate with people with impairments," Moreno said. "We're not like a crybaby group. We actually do things. We have a lot of fun."

She has been a Muscular Dystrophy Association Poster Child and a member of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Psi Chi international honor society in psychology, Rotaract, the Human Resources Club, Student Rehabilitation Association, ECU Honor Court and the Americans with Disabilities Act Committee.

She also is a peer educator for CIRCAW, a student group that promotes nonviolent attitudes and behaviors that respect and protect women and men on the ECU campus. She is a recipient of the Richard E. Baumgartner Scholarship and the Counseling Spirit Award and has also been listed in "Who's Who Among College Students."

Moreno is the daughter of Jim and Bethany Moreno of Marietta.

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