Pageant Winner Uses Crown to Help Children with Rare Speech Disorder

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Long before she was crowned Miss Richmond County 2013, Alyssa DePaolis ‘15C had a strong desire to help others. Now, the 20-year-old undergraduate is drawing on her faith, her celebrity and her education to bring childhood apraxia of speech (CAS) into the spotlight.

“Ever since kindergarten, I’ve studied at Catholic institutions, so giving back to the community has always been a part of my identity,” said DePaolis, a student at the Staten Island, NY, campus. “St. John’s speech pathology program has a great reputation, and since we’re a Vincentian university, I knew I’d have the chance to help others. It was a perfect fit. ”

The native of Eltingville, NY, first learned of CAS—a speech disorder in which the brain has problems directing the body parts needed for language—while serving an internship at a local speech clinic during her senior year in high school. A child with apraxia knows what he or she wants to say, but has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words.

“I got involved with the Miss America Organization because it gave me the potential to heighten awareness of CAS on a local and hopefully national level,” said DePaolis, who won her crown in January and plans to compete for the Miss New York and Miss America titles. “A speech disorder has never been discussed by a Miss America contestant, and I feel apraxia should be highlighted at a national forum.”

DePaolis doesn’t limit her campaign on behalf of children with CAS to the pageant circuit. In 2012 she organized Staten Island’s first Walk for Children with Apraxia of Speech. “That first year, about 250 people showed up, including my sorority sisters from Lambda Chi,” she said. “My sisters play a huge rule in helping raise awareness for CAS. This year, the walk doubled in size to 500 people. In just two years, we raised over $70,000 in support of apraxia research and education.”

As Miss Richmond County, DePaolis also hosted an “Apraxia 101” event in April 2013 where occupational therapists and community members throughout the region could learn about the disorder. According to DePaolis, children with apraxia often get misdiagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, due to the fact that the therapist isn’t aware of the disorder.  “Unfortunately, when this happens,” she said, “they don’t get the proper treatment.”  

DePaolis will graduate from St. John’s in January 2015 with a degree in speech pathology and a theology minor. In the immediate future, she plans to work in a speech clinic, where she can assist those with apraxia and other speech disorders. And, in order to increase awareness of CAS, she aims to compete for the Miss New York crown. “The whole reason I’m doing this is to get apraxia out there in the public eye,” she said. “I learn so much from the kids I work with and I do everything with them in mind.”