Julia Simko says she already has her life plan mapped out—but it’s going to have to take a back seat until after this summer.
Simko, a resident of West Windsor, was recently crowned state queen in the Senior Miss division (ages 28-35) at this year’s New Jersey Miss Amazing pageant, and now she’s hoping to take her place among the dozens of other contestants who earned a chance to vie for the national title in Chicago this August.
Simko is working to raise enough money so she can compete in the pageant.
New Jersey Miss Amazing is the Garden State’s chapter of the national Miss Amazing pageant, which celebrates girls and women with disabilities (Simko is autistic), while encouraging them to find a community and empowerment through inclusion, representation, and accessibility.
Currently a liberal arts major at Mercer County Community College, Simko, 28, is hoping to attend Juniata College to major in peace and conflict studies and also earn a psychology degree at the University of Pennsylvania.
She would also like a political career that would include establishing a stateside post that’s comparable to the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of Happiness and, ultimately, become the first president of the United States to have autism.
Big aspirations mean nothing without the accompaniment of equally big plans, and Simko has been busy considering all that she wants to accomplish.
She says that she’d use a legislative position to keep doing what she’s done for years: advocating for social justice, improved mental health support and awareness, and those with developmental disabilities, just to name a few.
Simko says that assuming the responsibilities of political a role would present a unique challenge to her sense of integrity, as she’s well aware that “politicians make promises they can’t always keep, and I don’t want to be someone who breaks my promises.”
But Simko believes it would be more than worth the occasional inner conflicts in order to be an agent of greater positive change.
“I once asked the mayor of West Windsor what it was like being mayor, and he said you have to make a lot of sacrifices—that made me think, ‘Uh-oh, what am I getting myself into’ and wonder if I should just listen to my career profile, which said I should go into social services,” she says. “The people who do social service jobs are so important but they’re paid terribly—and then I realized that, as a politician, I could be part of the decision to change how badly they’re paid.”
Simko’s involvement with Miss Amazing has helped contribute to her confidence that she can successfully pursue her goals.
Recognizing that girls who have a disability, whether it’s visible or not, are often the victims of harmful stereotypes about both their gender and abilities, the Miss Amazing organization gives its participants a platform to nurture a sisterhood, build life skills, and increase visibility for those who are all too often ignored or reduced to dismissive misconceptions.
Since its debut in 2007, Miss Amazing keeps growing and currently offers girls in more than half the country a chance to not only participate in its pageantry but also strengthen interpersonal bonds and discover their own potential.
With local chapters like New Jersey’s offering fundraisers and social brunches, there are plenty of opportunities for differently abled girls and women of all ages to become part of something bigger—and even become an inspiration to others.
Simko doesn’t remember exactly how New Jersey Miss Amazing landed on her radar, but she does recall how it evoked fond childhood memories of watching Miss America contestants shine on stage and wanting her own turn in the spotlight—after all, as she jokes, “I’m the youngest of my siblings, so there’s probably some social-science reason why I like being the center of attention.”
“We grew up watching the Miss America pageant, and it always seemed like fun so I wanted to give it a try,” Simko says. “When I found out there was a pageant designed for girls with special needs, my family helped me go for it.”
Segments of the competition include evening wear, an interview, and an optional talent portion, for which Simko has previously recited spoken-word pieces.
For this year’s New Jersey Miss Amazing, she sang an a capella performance of “Dreamer in Disguise” from Carrie: The Musical—though she feels that returning to poetry for future pageants suits her better.
“I made a note for nationals: Don’t sing,” she says with a laugh.
In addition to having autism spectrum disorder, Simko says that she also has depression and anxiety disorders, but is fiercely independent and determined to forge ahead with the life she wants to live.
Being a part of Miss Amazing has given her a platform to advocate for her trifecta of pet causes—social justice, mental health and developmental disabilities—while being proof to the girls who see themselves in her that they are all capable of anything their hearts desire.
“I want girls to feel like they’re not limited,” Simko says. “Even backstage, I’ll hear the way some of the girls’ parents underestimate them, and I don’t like it, but I can’t say anything. But it does make being able to say, ‘I told you so’ feel good because it’s like, I said I’d be able to do this and I proved to everyone that I did.”
Simko had previously won the Miss division in 2016 and went on to compete in Chicago; while she didn’t win, she is matter-of-fact about the odds of being crowned queen and, instead, focuses on the positives of the experience itself.
“Everyone still gets a crown and a trophy even if you don’t get the title,” she says. “I didn’t win when I went to nationals, but it was easy to handle that because it was still fun to compete.”
This might not be Simko’s first shot at nationals but it is the first time she needs to secure the funds to both travel to and participate in the pageant completely on her own, and it’s proving to be more of a challenge than she anticipated.
She had tried to set up a GoFundMe account, but that wound up creating confusion by interfering with some of her government benefits.
So she turned to both traditional and nontraditional “fun”raiser ideas, ranging from a lemonade stand to a bake sale to “a hugging booth, because I love giving people hugs.”
But since her living community’s rules make it difficult to set up stands and sales, Simko is looking to think of ways to raise the $4,000 in travel costs she needs in order to have her second chance at the national crown.
Simko isn’t in it for the title and the win, though. She knows that being high-functioning and verbal puts her in a positon to speak for herself, but it’s those who can’t advocate for themselves who she wants to be a voice.
“If you can, write letters, call people, be heard,” she says. “If one person’s not hearing you, maybe contact someone higher up. Use your voice. Find out who you need to talk to.”
Simko advises those who feel that they’re under-represented or are inspired to pursue a societal change, either for themselves or others.
“There are so many people who are high-functioning individuals who still aren’t heard, there are moderate- and lower-functioning individuals who are ignored, and there are higher-functioning individuals who just aren’t verbal,” she says.
Simko says she knows what it’s like to feel immobilized by circumstances beyond her control. She is worried what will happen to her state benefits when she finds her next home beyond New Jersey, and she’s frustrated when people don’t take the time to look beyond her diagnoses and see her for her personality and passions—and she doesn’t want others to go through any of that.
“Never underestimate people!” she says. “One of the quotes I like to say to people because I process information a little slowly is that I’m slow, not stupid.
“You can’t just say to someone that they can’t do something. It might take them a little bit longer, someone might take a while to be ready to show you how smart and capable they are, but you’ve got to believe they can do it.”
Simko has been able to establish an online fundraiser through Miss Amazing. Those interested in helping her raise money for the national pageant can visit sponsoraqueen2019.funraise.org/fundraiser/julia-simko.