Woman competes to be Miss Wheelchair USA

Almost 18 years after a devastating car accident that changed her life, Jaime Smitherman is using her personal tragedy to empower others disabled by injuries.

Smitherman was a 16-year-old cheerleader and honor student at Boaz High School when the accident occurred. The summer before her senior year, she and a friend were driving down Martling Road toward the Asbury community when their car went off one of the infamous double bridges into the creek below. Smitherman survived the accident but suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injury leaving her permanently paralyzed from the chest down.

“When I first got injured, I think the hardest thing was just to kind of find yourself,” she said. “Sixteen’s hard at any age in the best of circumstances, and it’s really hard when your life is having to start over and you’re having to find what you’re good at again and your self-worth.”

After some time, Smitherman overcame her struggles. She went on to graduate from high school with honors, attended Snead State Community College and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix. Ten years ago, she began working for Elizabeth Maddox and State Farm Insurance in Boaz. She quickly began to excel in the insurance world, and today she is a full-time, fully-licensed insurance representative for State Farm Insurance in Boaz.

Finding employment was key to Smitherman’s recovery because it helped her rediscover a sense of self-worth. Today she is paying it forward by mentoring others who are disabled by injuries, especially spinal cord injuries.

“I just felt like I was OK once I started working,” she said. “I really think there’s other people in the same situation that don’t know how to take that first step.

“I’ve been hurt for more than 16 years so I’ve kind of been there, done that. It’s scary for someone who’s just been injured and doesn’t necessarily know what their next step is going to be.”

Smitherman works through the state’s vocational rehabilitation program to provide emotional support, encouragement and assistance to help people with newly disabled individuals get back on their feet and back in the workforce.

“It’s so hard for people who have disability, especially someone that has a pretty significant injury, to take the step of starting to work,” she said. “I think it’s something that has helped me. To stay home is just not my thing.

“I try to help them just get out some. Once they get out, they see that things aren’t as hard. Plus, I think it helps to have somebody that they can call and say, ‘I’m just having a hard time. What did you do in this situation?’ I’ve done it all. I know how it feels to be at your lowest and then to finally be at peace with your situation.”

Because of Smitherman’s dedication to helping others, she was recently named Ms. Wheelchair Alabama and will go on to compete in the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition in July. Her selection for the state title was based on a nomination, her application, letters of recommendation and her history of community service.

“I definitely was flattered,” she said of her nomination to be the state’s representative.

With numerous speaking engagements, meet-and-greets, workshops, an interview and a small pageant, Smitherman hopes her time at the Ms. Wheelchair USA competition will help spread her passion for empowering and employing women, both disabled and able-bodied.

“I just think it’s something that’s needed, so that really gave me a chance to speak on it and have input from other people in other states,” she said. “I just think women in general are the strongest. I think women with disabilities are almost even stronger because they’re more overcomers.”

Smitherman would like to start a mentorship and education program involving employers, employees and disabled individuals wanting a job to promote more employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“I think a lot of employers want to help, but they don’t know how to go about it,” she said. “A lot of times the state will help pay for an employee to be trained and pay their wages while their being trained. They’ll pay for ramps, if a bathroom needs to be upgraded and things like that. That all doesn’t fall just on the employers. There are resources out there that a lot of people just aren’t familiar with to make that transition.”

Family and friends are collecting monetary donations to help Smitherman with costs for her trip to the national competition. To contribute, checks may be made out to the Dane Foundation with Smitherman’s name written in the memo line. They can be dropped off at State Farm in Boaz during regular business hours. Or donations can be made online at http://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/yx22/jaimesmitherman or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ms-Wheelchair-Alabama-USA-2013/473963462659141?group_id=0.

By Malarie Allen

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