Erika Bogan looked around at the kindergarteners in the Odell Elementary School cafeteria in Concord, smiled and delivered her straightforward message:
Just because she was in a wheelchair did not mean she was any different than anyone else.
"I am differently-abled, not disabled," said the 29-year-old Concord woman. "I can do things that everyone else does, I just walk in a different way."
She has been spreading that message a lot lately.
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Bogan was named Ms. Wheelchair America 2010 over the summer, and she addressed the students wearing a sash and tiara.
Principal Lynn Marsh knows Bogan well since she volunteers at the school and one of her daughters goes there too.
"She's a real inspirational person," Marsh said. "She's the same every time you meet her, just one of the sweetest people I know."
No memory of the crash
The accident happened in January 2002.
Bogan and her boyfriend at the time had a rocky relationship. They were arguing in the Oldsmobile he was driving, which she said was speeding at night along wet roads. He lost control of the vehicle and crashed.
Neither was wearing seatbelts, but while the boyfriend had minor injuries, Bogan wound up in a coma for two-and-a-half months.
She had no memory of the accident, but was told the car had flipped several times, she was ejected and hit a tree. A vertebra in her back shattered, and she was paralyzed from the waist down with a spinal cord injury.
Bogan was told she'd never walk again.
"I was very angry and hurt, but I had to keep a smile on my face for my family," she said.
Bogan said she felt a lot of self-pity at first but gradually came to believe she had to pull herself out of the emotional hole she was in and move forward.
One of her physical therapists insisted that her life was not over, and that everything happened for a reason. Bogan watched how paralyzed "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve had handled his paralysis, and that inspired her too.
She bought a house in Concord and tried to meet people beyond those she already knew. Bogan also took a job at Medical Home Health and Mobility in Concord as their purchasing agent.
Bogan, who is single, has three daughters, and is studying psychology at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College because she wants to counsel other people.
'Not a pageant girl'
When someone suggested she enter the Ms. Wheelchair America contest, her first reaction was to say no.
"I'm not really a pageant kind of girl," she said.
But after researching the group, Bogan was inspired by the contestants' stories and decided to give it a try.
After she won the state competition last spring, she went on to the national event in South Dakota in August. Bogan welcomed the chance to continue to speak out about overcoming obstacles.
The contest itself was "a crazy blur" to Bogan, who started shaking and crying when she was announced the winner.
Brandee Ponder, the coordinator for the state contest, praised Bogan's infectious spirit.
"She is absolutely inspirational" with a message for men and women alike that even though they have a disability, they can still lead a full life, Ponder said.
Bogan travels around the country for speaking engagements as Ms. Wheelchair America, including a talk at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Her message to the able-bodied community is that people with disabilities are not defined by that disability. And she hopes to motivate disabled people that anything is possible.
Kids with questions
In the Odell cafeteria, Bogan tells the kids she got hurt in a car crash because she wasn't wearing a seatbelt. But wearing one is very important, she said.
The kids soon peppered her with questions:
"How did you get in a car crash?"
"How do you get in your house?"
"How do you get up stairs?"
Bogan patiently explained the car she was a passenger in went too fast and they crashed. She said she gets into a house by using a ramp to the door. And she usually doesn't go up stairs unless someone is carrying her.
Bogan also continued to emphasize all the things she has in common with other people.
"I do the same things all of your mommies and daddies do," she told the students. "I work Monday through Friday. I clean, and I cook dinner."
Bogan then described how she goes surfing every summer, but she surfs on her knees, not her feet.
One child said her sister was in a wheelchair.
"She is? She's special too, just like you are," Bogan said, smiling broadly.
After the talk, many of the kids file in front of her, giving her high-fives and hugs.
Bogan also continues to try to provide inspiration to others on her Web site, "Unperfect Angel," which reflects her personality and tells her story.
Here's how she explained the significance of the site's name:
"I don't want to be portrayed as a perfect beauty queen. I have tattoos. I have piercings....I make mistakes every day."
"It's what we do after that that counts," she said. "I'm taking a tragedy in my life and turning it into something positive. That's where the angel part comes in."