Pageant gives spotlight to special-needs stars
by Denise Ellen Rizzo
May 06, 2014 | 7695 views | 2 2 comments | 70 70 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Crowns and Cases Pageant
Laynie Griener, 10, of Tracy, is named Miss Precious Smile at the first Crowns & Cases Special Needs Pageant on Saturday at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts. The event honored local children and adults with special needs, and each participant received a crown, sash and medal. Denise Ellen Rizzo/Tracy Press
view slideshow (10 images)
Beaming, Laynie Griener lit up the stage as she received her crown and the title of Miss Precious Smile during the first Crowns & Cases Special Needs Pageant on Saturday at the Grand Theatre Center for the Arts.

The 10-year-old Tracy girl was one of 21 contestants taking part in the pageant to honor local children and adults with special needs, as well as foster children, according to Lori Souza, who coordinated the event.

Souza, who founded Tracy’s Cases for Kids nonprofit to provide personal items to local foster children, said she wanted to shine a light on children and adults who are typically not recognized by the general public .

“A lot of (the contestants’) parents said they never imagined they would have a child in a pageant,” she said. “They were in awe.”

Run entirely by volunteers, the event was hosted by former City Councilman Steve Abercrombie and Miss Sunshine Seaport 2014 Emily McNiel, with help from several local royal court winners, including Tracy Dry Bean Festival royalty. Proceeds from ticket sales paid for the participants’ crowns and sashes and other event costs.

During the evening, the contestants took the stage to introduce themselves and answer questions to help the audience learn a little more about them. The questions ranged from favorite foods to role models, and the most popular answers were pizza and their mothers.

Before the crowning ceremony, the audience of more than 300 people enjoyed performances by Miss California 2013 Crystal Lee, Deborah Skinner’s Academy of Performing Arts and Starlight Studios.

Contestants in the pageant were Griener; Lisa Cammons, 23, of Tracy; Nirali Punjya, 22, of Tracy; Giselle Martinez, 7 , of Manteca; Sandra McIntyre, 10, of Tracy; Porsha Braodnax , 18, of Tracy; Teneya Spikes, 8, of Tracy; Natasha Collier, 18, of Tracy; Harmoni Balland, 7, of Hayward; Hezekiah DuBose, 14, of Manteca; Zurina Folkes, 6, of Tracy; Julianna Folkes, 4, of Tracy; Kekona Bronsgeest, 10, of Manteca; David Degrande, 8, of Stockton; Mikaela Yuson, 7, of Tracy; Ramon Andrade, 13, of Vernalis; Joaquin Aguirre, 8, of Tracy; Ernie Gomez Jr., 11, of Tracy; Tyler O’Keefe, 7, of Tracy; Cori Moran, 24, of Manteca; and Azeneth , 10, of Tracy, whose last name the organizers did not know.

Dressed in donated formal wear, each contestant received a special title, a medallion and a crown on stage from McNiel and members of the local royal court.

Among the titles presented were “Sweet Spirit,” “People’s Choice,” “Shining Star,” and king and queen of the pageant.

“We wanted to give them something to put on a shelf and say they were part of it,” Souza said.

As her inspiration for the pageant, Souza’s cousin Shauna Zanassi, 31, was given an honorary membership in the royal court and a crown.

Souza believed the participants and their parents each left with memories that would last them a lifetime.

“It showed all the blood, sweat and tears were worth it,” she said. “It was an incredible event. It went way beyond my expectations.”

Souza hopes to make the pageant annual but has not yet started planning for next year.

• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at or 830-4225.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
May 12, 2014
Very touching! Very commendable! GREAT JOB! Especially when it was done by all volunteers. Makes me proud to have moved my family to this community.
May 08, 2014
I was one of many coordinators of the event. Emily McNiel was so instrumental in the planning process, it could not have happened without her. Dawn Cooper and Yvonne Derby were also key players in planning. I also made sure to mention God because without my faith, none of this would have happened. Thank you to the community, parents, children, and families that participated in this event. Tracy is truly an amazing community. - Lori Souza

We encourage readers to share online comments in this forum, but please keep them respectful and constructive. This is not a space for personal attacks, libelous statements, profanity or racist slurs. Comments that stray from the topic of the story or are found to contain abusive language are subject to removal at the Press’ discretion, and the writer responsible will be subject to being blocked from making further comments and have their past comments deleted. Readers may report inappropriate comments by e-mailing the editor at