Long odds haven’t stopped Kelsey Norris. She’s thrived despite them.
Kelsey was born in Russia. Bonaire resident Carol Norris adopted her from an orphanage when she was a young child. She was severely malnourished because of an intolerance to milk.
Kelsey, who has also been diagnosed with autism, was 11 months old when the two met, and she weighed just 11 pounds.
“When I walked into the room, there were 20 or so babies and toddlers,” Norris remembered. “One of them said, ‘Momma,’ and it was this one.”
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From that time, Norris recalled a day when she could visit Kelsey but couldn’t bring her home yet. Always among the smallest of the group, Kelsey -- along with other small children -- was a target when meal time came around.
Others lost their bread, but Kelsey clinched hers in a fist and covered it with her body, taking a few kicks and pushes from older children but keeping her food.
“I think that tenacity, that will to live, kept her alive long enough until I found her,” Norris said.
In the years since, the two have bonded while Kelsey developed a variety of interests. She does gymnastics, dance and even cheerleading, and her mother has been there every step of the way.
“I always kiss her,” Kelsey said.
Through her gymnastics and dance classes at KidsAmerica in Perry, Kelsey became interested in pageants. In the last year, she’s competed in 40 pageants and won 35 titles, and just two of those were specifically for special needs children.
The others had Kelsey working with and competing against the general population of participants, and that has been a good experience for her, Norris said.
“Since she’s started pageants, eye contact, the ability to walk up to peers she doesn’t know ... has improved,” she said.
While media reports sometimes paint children’s pageants as cutthroat, Kelsey has had a different experience.
Norris said the other contestants have helped Kelsey remember when to go on stage and where to go, and many of the “nice friends” the Norrises have encountered have told stories about how autism has affected their lives.
“For the most part, the other participants and their parents have been fantastic,” she said.
Kelsey pointed to the trophies and her friends, along with winning, among the best parts of her pageant experience.
“I like walking on stage and smiling,” she said.
Pam Lashley, who has taught Kelsey gymnastics and dance at KidsAmerica, has been her coach for pageants. A winner in several Middle Georgia events herself, Lashley first started helping Kelsey after they watched last year’s Miss Warner Robins pageant.
“Her maturity, her confidence and her presentation of herself has grown tremendously,” Lashley said. “She’s definitely more confident. She’s not scared to speak in public.”
Kelsey has also seen improvements in her school work. She’s taking speech therapy, and Gina Ernst, her new teacher at Bonaire Elementary School, is optimistic about Kelsey’s fifth-grade year.
“She says that over the course of the next year, they’ll be transitioning Kelsey more into the general education,” Norris said, adding that Kelsey is now on grade level in most subjects.
Kelsey has grown to love school and her teachers like Ernst and Dana Nave.
“I like doing math,” she said, and a recent book fair also delighted her.
As part of her pageant efforts, Kelsey has begun doing community service work. She saves her allowance and birthday money to buy food for a backpack ministry that benefits needy children, and she also buys dog food for the Flint Humane Society in Dooly County.
Kelsey gets “happy and excited” to see her good work make a small difference, and it’s been another part of her growth process.
“Not only that, she’s able to help other people,” Norris said.
Through all of the facets of the life the two have developed together, Norris said she frequently hears from people whom Kelsey has inspired.
Her mother is amazed, too. A little girl born a world away in an orphanage where she was starving, with a complex brain disorder, now bubbles in and out of conversation and competes in pageants.
“What you’re seeing now is not anything anyone ever predicted could happen,” Norris said.
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.