Nearly 14 years ago when B.J. and Johnathan Thorn exchanged nuptials, they had no idea the profound impact they would have one day on the lives of so many people. B.J., then 19, and Johnathan, 22, learned they were pregnant one month after returning from their honeymoon ... with twins.
"We didn't even have time to get to like each other," Thorn says.
The Thorns began making plans like any soon-to-be parents, but no amount of planning could have adequately prepared them for the early arrival of their daughters.
"They were born at 25 weeks," Thorn explains. "At three days old, they both had brain bleeds. The doctors knew Andrea would have a form of cerebral palsy due to the bleeding, but they were not sure what the severity of it would be. Andrea's identical twin, Bailee, was fine."
Andrea has hydrocephalus, often referred to as "water on the brain," where cerebral spinal fluid collects on the brain because it is blocked-off and unable to travel down the spine.
At first, fluid was drained from Andrea's brain to an external system, but before long, the doctor implanted a shunt.
"The shunt, like an internal plumbing system, routed the fluid from the brain to the stomach," Thorn explains.
This made Andrea very sick; she had multiple seizures and trips to the hospital.
After several years of enduring sickness, and with all options seemingly exhausted, the doctor said they could attempt routing the fluid to her heart.
"They really were not sure Andrea would make it through the surgery, but we had to try. We had tried everything else," Thorn says. "She has had more than 70 surgeries and spent a lot of time in the hospital."
The surgery was a success; Andrea's heart was able to pump out the fluid.
"When we walked into that recovery room, it was like we were looking at a different child - she was alive!'" Thorn says.
She credits her positive outlook and strength to the relationship she has with her husband.
"My husband is my best friend; we are a team. We have gotten through this together, and it has been tough sometimes, but we are closer because of it," she says.
The couple had a third daughter, Lauren Grace, six years later.
In the meantime, B.J. went on to become a nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
One afternoon, a dress shopping excursion changed the lives of every member in the Thorn family.
"The other two girls were trying on pageant dresses and Andrea, then 13, said, 'Mama, I want to be in a pageant.' We've never been a die-hard pageant family, like 'Toddlers and Tiaras' or anything," Thorn says.
Andrea's request was all the motivation Thorn needed. And just like that, the nurse and mother of three daughters was now an advocate for those with special needs.
"When finding nothing 'just right' for her, we decided to make our own," Thorn said.
She and Johnathan created the Arkansas Angels Pageant. The contestants are male and female, ages zero to 21, who have special needs.
A special needs contestant is one who has been identified by a doctor as having a physical or mental impairment; this could include hearing or sight impairments, as well as autism or any other condition deemed differently-abled.
"We are blessed to be surrounded by special individuals who exuberate beauty inside and out. No matter what physical or mental different ability, everyone has the right to 'strut their stuff' and feel beautiful," Thorn says.
The pageants are a family affair for the Thorns.
"Bailee created the logo and Johnathan named the pageant," she says. "Lauren Grace is a spit-fire. She has a different respect for life, watching the volunteers and living with someone medically-fragile."
Thorn says the family's efforts are both heart-warming and time-consuming.
"We feel the pain of our families, because we live it," she says. "While organizing the pageants is time-consuming, the girls are excited, wanting to know when the next pageant is going to be." All pageant participants are awarded a crown, sash, goody bag and medal, and through sponsorships all costs are covered.
"It costs $25 per contestant," Thorn explains. "We may ask people for $25 and we'll get $50 or $100. We'll get checks from places like New York and Kentucky. We'll get donations from people we don't know. Volunteers do hair, makeup and nails."
It is only the second year for the Arkansas Angels Pageant, and with pageants in 15 states from coast to coast, Thorn's mission has grown to the Angels Pageant System.
"Arkansas has four pageants; Texas has five; California, two and Missouri, two," Thorn says. "The United Kingdom and Germany have inquired about starting pageants as well."
Approximately 30 states have called for information about the pageants.
The pageants have fulfilled a need for many. According to Thorn, the volunteers come to realize that their life isn't so bad; parents of children with special needs have a network of support.
"We want to show these kids are beautiful too. We will have 1,000 kids crowned by January 2013," Thorn said.
To participate, volunteer or sponsor, visit arkansasangelspageants.weebly.com or find them on facebook.