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Palm Harbor college student shines light on autism
Rachel Barcellona promotes Ability Beyond Disability
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Photo courtesy of RACHEL BARCELLONA
Twenty-year-old Rachel Barcellona is the current Miss Southeast International and won Miss Florida International 2016.
PALM HARBOR – On Aug. 4 through 5, Palm Harbor’s Rachel Barcellona, the current Miss Southeast International, will head to Charleston, West Virginia, for the final competition for the title of the Miss International 2017 competition.

The Miss International Pageant was developed with the mission of “To Make a Difference,” in the spirit of going beyond the Toddler-and-Tiara type competitions.

The competition showcases single young women who are 19 to 30 years old. Beyond the interview, evening gown, fitness wear and fun fashion wear portions of the competition, each contestant has to select a platform that they spend a year promoting.

Barcellona’s platform is called “Ability Beyond Disability,” creating awareness and acceptance for people that are not neurotypical, including herself.

At 3 years old, Barcellona was diagnosed with autism, but she’s never stopped moving forward.

At 5 years old, Barcellona began pageants, but the glitz and the glam and heavy makeup really wasn’t the right fit.

“I really didn’t belong,” Barcellona said. “My parents bought a thrift store dress.”

It wasn’t until later, when she was at Dunedin High School, that a friend convinced her to get back on the stage and try the Miss Regional pageants.

“I loved it,” Barcellona said. “I discovered I belonged on the stage. It’s fun. It’s not all about looks. It’s all about your platform.”

Though her platform deals in raising awareness for children with various special needs, she does have a focus on children with autism. She said not everyone with autism has the same story.

“People think we’re all genius nerds like Sheldon,” Barcellona said. “It’s a spectrum. We’re just people. I think the media has kind of betrayed us.”

On top of the pageants, Barcellona sings opera, draws cartoons and writes.

“That’s my dream,” Barcellona said. “To be published.”

She is living out another dream, however, by walking at New York Fashion week this year, for the second year in a row, though she’s not sure which designer she will be walking for.

She’s traveled to England for Autism Speaks and Canada for the Global Autism Project. In total, she’s volunteered her time to more than 30 causes and has served in numerous leadership roles. She’s been an International Ambassador for the Unicorn Children’s Foundation and a board member for the University of South Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. She’s also supported the National Heart Association’s Go Red for Women program.

She may have to travel to South Africa for an autism-related conference. In total, Barcellona has made over 300 appearances for her platform. She’s hoping to eventually hit 1,000.

“For right now, I’m happy with 300,” Barcellona said.

Her accomplishments don’t stop there.

Barcellona is currently studying at St. Petersburg College with hopes of eventually getting her Ph.D. in Special Education, and hopes to open a school for all kids, with an emphasis on children with disabilities.

“People with autism can do anything,” Barcellona said. “Be proud. Always be proud of who you are.”
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