By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Most Sunday mornings Patti Panzarino can be found attending church service at Greater Grace Christian Fellowship in Marlborough, 187 Pleasant St. Outside of the sanctuary, she is not only a founding member of the band, OLYPSYS, but she has recently been crowned Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts.
Panzarino was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 (SMA 2), a genetic disease in which loss of nerve cells in the spinal cord affects the part of the nervous system that controls voluntary muscle movement. Although Panzarino has lived her life in a wheelchair, she has not let her disability get in the way of her dreams.
Panzarino brought her message of empowerment to the Ms. Wheelchair Competition March 3. Her platform of “Creative Perseverance,” born out of life experiences, inspired the judges to crown her Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts 2012 at the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton. The mission of the Ms. Wheelchair America Program, and the individual state programs, is to “provide an opportunity for women of achievement who utilize wheelchairs to successfully educate and advocate for individuals with disabilities,” according to the organization's website www.mswheelchairmass.org.
“The platform for my year as Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts is “Creative Perseverance.” This has actually been the theme of my whole life,” Panzarino said. “I learned to self-advocate from my older sister who mentored me at a very young age. The more that people with disabilities push through obstacles and participate in life, the more people will see us and our acceptance and encouragement to participate increases. It becomes an upward spiral.”
Just as Panzarino's older sister (who also had SMA 2 and passed away from related complications) mentored her, she too, would like to mentor others. As Ms. Wheelchair MA, she will encourage people with disabilities to pursue their dreams. She will encourage them to be their own advocates and to find creative ways to accomplish more than they ever thought possible. Most importantly, she hopes to inspire them to “get out there and live.”
“When talking to people with disabilities, I usually go with their capacity to hear what I have to say and I gently encourage and offer help and suggestions. I try to lead by example. Encouragement and enthusiasm is very contagious,” Panzarino said.
“Many people think that obstacles can be just physical,” she said. “Physical obstacles can be changed by laws and creativity. I believe the biggest obstacles toward people with disabilities are attitudes from others. I have always been one to look people in the eye and smile and say hello. This way they don’t see just the wheelchair, they see the person in it. I love to engage people in conversation and ask them how their day is going. I use my sense of humor to put people more at ease.”
Panzarino credits her deep faith for making her the person she is today.
“My faith means everything to me. Jesus Christ is first and foremost. I cannot be the wife I am, the friend I am, the advocate I am, the musician I am, or the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts that I am without him. It all starts with him,” she said. “Since my music and my title of Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts does not have any specific religious affiliation, I don’t speak about it unless someone asks. Many times we can show Jesus to others by just letting Him live through us and not saying a thing. If Jesus was walking around in human form today he would probably be in lots of public places not just churches. We go to church to get built up in our faith; we take it to others by participating in life. When people ask me where I get my strength I tell them the truth.”
As Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts, Panzarino plans to open doors for women with disabilities, giving them the confidence to reach for and achieve their goals. Musically, she would love to receive a Grammy and accept the award by following a “big ramp leading right up to the podium.” She would also love to sing the National Anthem at a Red Sox game. To this end, she has already submitted an audition CD and is just waiting to hear back.
“My life goals are to use the gifts God gave me as long as possible and to embrace every opportunity that I can.”
Panzarino will compete for the title of Ms. Wheelchair America 2013 this August in Providence, R.I.
To learn more about the Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts Foundation visit http://www.mswheelchairmass.org/.