Saba Harris of Conway competed in her first pageant in April and took home the crown as Ms. Arkansas USA Ambassador 2017.
The 42 year old said she decided to go for it because she felt connected to what this specific pageant promotes, which is "success through leadership, integrity, character and confidence," according to the pageant’s website.
"I believe [in] the core of what it represents," Harris said.
She said Renee Stone, the state director for Arkansas, approached Harris and told her about the pageant.
"She thought that I would do well and felt like it was a great platform for my story," she said.
In 2012, Harris was diagnosed with a rare brain disease called Pseudo Tumor Cerebri — currently her platform for the pageant — that causes a overproduction of cerebospinal fluids with symptoms that mimic a brain tumor.
The chronic disease is incurable but can be managed. The illness can cause many symptoms that affect daily living including chronic headaches, migraines, nausea, fatigue, body aches, dizziness, loss of balance, memory issues, anxiety and possible episodes of blindness.
Harris, a former full-time teacher in Conway, developed meningitis and 10 months later, was notified of her new condition and then bed-ridden.
She said she has lost nearly 130 pounds since.
Through the past four years, Harris said she has made improvements to her health including eating better and adding more exercise to her daily routine. While the added changes have helped, her health may differ day to day.
She said she competed in the pageant due to her grandmother’s encouragement as well.
"She knew how much I loved community service and knew I wasn’t chasing dreams because of my health," Harris said.
Unfortunately, her grandmother died the day before the event in April, which set Harris’s health back and made her consider dropping out.
In the end, she decided to press on because of how much her grandmother had believed in her.
"I felt like if she believed I could do it, I could sure try," Harris said.
She said she was proud and thankful she didn’t give up. She said she felt like her grandmother would’ve been proud of her as well.
"It would’ve been very easy to not do it under those circumstances," Harris said.
She will travel to Tampa, Florida, to compete in nationals July 25-30.
"I am extremely excited, [but] I’m extremely nervous because I’ve never done anything like this before," Harris said.
In addition to travel expenses that she is raising, she said she also hopes she stays in good health — a daily challenge — to go.
Harris said she is looking forward to representing others with her disease at a national level.
"I’m hoping to make them proud," she said.
While it’s difficult to find the motivation to keep going with a chronic illness like this, Harris said she wants to show and represent what hard work and dedication to a healthy lifestyle can do.
"We can be our best us," she said.
Whether she wins or not, Harris said during her reign as Ms. Arkansas USA Ambassador 2017, she aims to continue raising awareness for the cause.
Harris will be hosting an IH Awareness Day on Sept. 30 during National IH Awareness Month.
"It is a day for sufferers, or caregivers or family members to come and show their support," she said.
In addition to the event, Harris said she has a goal to share her story with every neurologist in the state.
"It is important that each neurologist have up to date information from the IH Research Foundation which provides doctors with current research and information on this rare disease which is under diagnosed from a lack of awareness," Harris said in a news release.
For those interested in supporting Harris financially, donations can be made at paypal.me/sabaharris.
The USA Ambassador Pageant is a charity organization that was founded in 2010 by mother and daughter Barbara and Kristin Thurston, the website stated, and has seven national titles including Ms., Mrs., Miss, Teen, Jr. Teen, Preteen and Jr. Preteen.
"The pageant was established to promote each contestant’s individual strength and encouraging its queens, contestants and families to be involved in their communities and serve as ambassadors," the website reads.