Mrs. Connecticut puts her title to use
GREENWICH — Last month, Izabela O’Brien was on the stage at the Mrs. America Pageant in Las Vegas with the title of Mrs. Connecticut already draped across her shoulder and her eye on the top prize.
Now back home in Greenwich, O’Brien, who ended up one of the top 15 finishers at the national pageant, said she was happy use it as she has all her competitions: as a platform to talk about her Fearless Angel Project, and the foundation’s work as it moves toward its annual fundraising luncheon on Sept. 13.
O’Brien formed the Fearless Angel Foundation in 2014 after difficult experiences she and her husband Daniel went through in seeking help for their daughter Alina. In 2007, Alina was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified, a condition noted by some features of autism as well as other developmental disabilities.
“PDD-NOS is under the autism spectrum,” O’Brien said. “It’s like the rainbow and no two kids on the autism spectrum are alike. They all have different types of strengths and deficits.”
The disorder requires therapy, special schooling and support. O’Brien and her husband have had to work tirelessly to make sure their daughter gets what she needs. The foundation was formed to help others parents who do not have access to the same resources they have.
At the luncheon, O’Brien said they anticipate being able to give out four scholarships to help families have access to therapeutic swim lessons, biomedical treatment and applied behavioral analysis therapy, which is considered the gold standard.
How much those scholarships will be is still unknown as fundraising is ongoing. The scholarships are supplemented by the help of Angel Fish, a group of occupational therapists, the Center for Growth and Development in Wilton and Nancy O’Hare from the Center for Integrated Health in Wilton.
“We are trying to raise awareness for the autism population and to let them know that these are the therapies that actually help children progress,” O’Brien said. “Why it’s so important for me to have this foundation and have these scholarships is so we can integrate and have our children be accepted in everyday society. Autism is a very isolating diagnosis for families and when they get this diagnosis they tend to want to isolate and not go out in public. For me it’s so integral for my child and all the other children that these families are not afraid.”
The scholarships are going to Fairfield County families.
Tickets ($25-$1,500) are still available for the Sept. 13 luncheon which begins at 11 a.m. at Greenwich Country Club. It will feature remarks by Lara Stolman, producer and director of the documentary “Swim Team” about a New Jersey swim team made up of teenagers on the autism spectrum. The McQuay family, who are featured in the documentary, will also be guests at the luncheon.
More information is online at www.thefearlessangelproject.com.
Alina recently turned 13 and is a student at the Villa Maria School in Stamford. O’Brien said she is progressing both socially and academically while responding well to swim therapy, music therapy, ABA therapy and horse riding therapy. But the family still faces difficult challenges.
Over the summer, O’Brien said she was awoken one morning by what she thought was a noise in her refrigerator but was actually her daughter having a seizure for the first time and banging her head against the floor.
“It’s things like that which are always arising when you’re raising a child on the spectrum,” O’Brien said. “You always have to be on your toes. With kids on the spectrum they do have a much higher probability of having seizures but usually you see that by age 10 if that’s going to happen. She just turned 13 and it was a shocking development.”
New medication and work with a neurologist has so far prevented another seizure.
O’Brien said there are times when Alina does something socially which will cause people to remark how poorly she’s behaving when the truth is far different.
“I feel like it’s my job to educate the public to have a more compassionate, open mind so they don’t think it’s someone being rude but realize that they are struggling and doing the best they can,” O’Brien said. “People don’t realize, and if we bring that compassion to typical families and children see their parents acting in an open minded and compassionate way, then they’ll learn to be that way as well.”
It’s a message she works to spread through her pageant competitions. Last month’s pageant was something O’Brien was able to share with Daniel, Alina and their two younger daughters, 11-year-old Yvette and nine-year-old Ireland. It was O’Brien’s second time competing for the title of Mrs. America. In both 2015 and 2017 she won the Mrs. Connecticut competition, becoming the first woman to ever get the honor twice.
“It was exhilarating,” O’Brien said. “To see my family in the audience cheering so loudly for me meant the world for me. I can’t tell you how great it was to speak to the judges about my foundation and really open up emotionally to them about what this means. One of the judges said to me, ’My grandson has autism. Thank you so much for spreading the word.”