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Stephanie Parker

When you're a young woman, finding your place in the world can be difficult enough—and when a disability is part of the challenge, the feeling of being marginalized only grows. Stephanie Parker says that's why she created the Aurora Foundation almost 10 years ago—to help girls and young women with various disabilities learn leadership and advocacy skills. Parker is looking for local fashion designers to participate in a new contest as part of Aurora's annual disABLED Divaz Fashion Show on Nov. 13. There's a stipend and a cash award involved. For more information, go to www.planetaurora.org.

What do you do for women and girls?

We help them develop skills for advocacy, and (teach them) how to advocate for other people with disabilities. ... Our advocacy efforts in town are to increase awareness about the assets and abilities of young women with disabilities—stressing the abilities, and eradicating the "dis" in disability. Also, (we help) people to know how much these women can contribute if allowed to do so.

Tell me more about the fashion show you do every year.

It's our annual disABLED Divaz Fashion Show, celebrating beautiful women in their teens and 20s, and even into their 50s. We do it at the Marriott University Hotel. This will be our third year there. This year, it's on Nov. 13, at 5:30 p.m. Our first one was in 2006. We had 12 models, and we hoped there would be one parent or guardian (for each), but we had over 100 people. ... This year, we are expecting 300.

How do the models get involved?

It's an opportunity for the women (with disabilities) who participate to do a series of workshops that start in August. We teach them how to be a model on a runway, and poise, and how to be in front of a group of people. Also we teach them how to connect with people in the audience—nonverbal interaction. The workshops start Aug. 28 and go through Nov. 6, and we have women ... who have physical mobility disabilities. Some have spina bifida; some have experienced spinal-cord injuries; some have been in an accident and have a traumatic brain injury; some have developmental disabilities, some emotional disabilities, some with neurological disorders. It runs the gamut.

How did you start the organization?

I came to that point in my life where I had this longtime dream to work in higher education. I went back to get my doctorate. I worked for the University of Hartford in Connecticut as an assistant professor in educational leadership. ... I came back here in 1996, and all along, I was thinking, "This dance isn't working for Stephanie Parker." (Academics) ended up being a system I wasn't prepared to find myself in. I left in 1999. ... My little brother and I had some wonderful conversations that helped me realize what I want to do, which was work with young women and girls who don't have the opportunity to learn about leadership and development, compared to their peers in society. The women are marginalized for factors way outside of their control.

What's new about the fashion show this year?

This year, for the first time, we're going to have a fashion-design competition. We're calling that Celebrating Beautiful Designs. It's open to professional designers, those who are skilled amateurs, and those students enrolled in fashion-design programs at Pima Community College and the Art Institute of Tucson. We'd like to have more designers participate with us. We're providing stipends to assist them in the purchase of fabric and notions for their garments. The models will model them in front of a five-judge panel on Nov. 6—judges from the local area, who have a role in the fashion industry. On the evening of the fashion show, we will announce the winners and make cash awards.

What other programs do you have?

Early on, we received a four-year grant to produce a curriculum for advocacy and leadership development. We completed that project a couple of years ago, and now we have a beautiful and unique curriculum called Leaders for a Lifetime. We're going to be offering training (next year) for disability professionals, especially those who work with women 15 to 25 years old. After this event is over, we will start working on our film forum, called "This Is Who I Am." It's an independent film festival showcasing films made by, for and with young women with disabilities. We hosted the first one in September 2006 at the Loft.

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