Local pageant contestants complete Adventurous Journey on canoe, bike

By Lori Hansen • Last Updated 9:39 am on Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Daily News/Lori Hansen Miss Michigan Elizabeth Wertenberger and A.J. Stephens paddle at the start of their four and a half hour canoe adventure on the Flat River from Greenville to Belding.

GREENVILLE — Most people think of pageant contestants as parading around in sparkling gowns and tiaras or waving in parades.
They don’t think of these young women as paddling a canoe down a river, camping in a tent or riding miles on a bike, especially in the crisp late-October weather.
Miss Michigan 2011 Elizabeth Wertenberger and two local pageant participants, AJ Stephens and Bryelle Gloden, proved they fit in both situations.
The three, along with Danish Festival Queen’s Director Julie Stephens, participated in An Adventurous Journey through the Duke of Edinburgh International Award for Young People program.
The four began Sunday afternoon by paddling four and a half hours from Jackson’s Landing in Greenville to East Riverside Park in Belding. After an outdoor overnight camping expedition in Greenville, they continued by biking the Heartland Trail from Greenville to Edmore on Monday.
Wertenberger, a 22-year-old Dundee resident, will compete in the Miss America pageant in January. She will receive a bronze medal for her participation in the Duke of Edinburgh program.
With a talent in musical theater dance, she has introduced dance to nursing home patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, meeting the physical recreation portion. She also works with children suffering from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Both fit her platform of “volunteerism: closing the gap, youth and senior citizen involvement.”
“I went undiagnosed from age 3 to 13 with rheumatoid arthritis, and once it was diagnosed, I began treatment, which ranged from taking 13 different kinds of pills per day,” Wertenberger said. “I was told my last option was 32 weeks of chemotherapy during my freshman year of high school. I went through kidney failure, lost my hair, was told I should have died and would probably be wheelchair-bound the rest of my life.”
Instead, Wertenberger recently graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. She changed her treatment by beginning a new regime of herbal treatment.
“Within six weeks, I was so much better. The doctors called me a miracle,” Wertenberger said. “I feel like I have been given a second chance at life and want to use my story and volunteering opportunities to reach kids and maybe give them hope that (juvenile rheumatoid arthritis) kids can do things like the Adventurous Journey.”
The Duke of Edinburgh program is a volunteer program open to any Michigan resident between 14 and 25. It has three levels of attainment: bronze, silver and gold.
AJ Stephens and Gloden are two of the 20 local participants.
“Of the four of us, Elizabeth is the only one who had ever been in a canoe before,” Julie Stephens said. “The last thing she said to me before we loaded up was, ‘I’ve never flipped over in a canoe before.’ She can’t say that anymore,”
Wertenberger said her canoe got stuck on rocks and “it was just tippy enough to make us go over.”

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