'Show the world what you can do': Toms River woman with autism takes home pageant crown

Jacqueline Czarnecki (right, in orange) competing in the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant.
Jacqueline Czarnecki (right, in orange) competing in the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant.

For seven months, Jacqueline Czarnecki spent each Saturday training for the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant. She took etiquette classes, participated in community service projects, shopped for gowns and shared her personal story as best as she could.

In last Saturday’s finale, the 31-year-old Toms River resident received a crown as a top-10 finisher.

That was a big deal, because Czarnecki has autism and is partially verbal, communicating in short sentences or single words. She was the pageant’s first-ever entrant with autism.

“This shows that you’re beautiful no matter what people label you as,” said Eboni Henderson, who assisted Czarnecki through the process. “Don’t let other people define you. Show the world what you can do.”

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Jacqueline Czarnecki
Jacqueline Czarnecki

Henderson is a staff member at New Horizons in Autism, a Freehold-based agency that runs day programs and group homes throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties. Czarnecki, who originally hails from East Brunswick, lives in its Toms River group home.

Czarnecki called the pageant “fun” and cited “hanging out on Saturdays” as her favorite part.

This was the agency’s first involvement with the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant, which was looking to diversify its contestant field. Czarnecki does not have Dominican Republic roots but was deemed a good fit in terms of temperament and ability to complete the comprehensive program.

“In the beginning some (fellow contestants) were nervous because they didn’t know how to approach her, but as we kept going they were very open to her,” Henderson said. “When we did the walk (runway walking practice) they would take her hand and say, ‘Do it like this Jacqueline.’ She loved the girls, the girls loved her, and she got out of the house, so it was really helpful for her.”

And for the others involved in the pageant.

“They saw what she was able to do,” Henderson said, “and not just her disability.”

Jacqueline Czarnecki (right) competing in the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant alongside assistant Eboni Henderson.
Jacqueline Czarnecki (right) competing in the Miss Dominican Republic of New Jersey pageant alongside assistant Eboni Henderson.

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Henderson has worked with Czarnecki for three years and was by her side on stage throughout three rounds of pageantry, handling the public speaking parts on her behalf.

“From start to finish it was a great experience,” Henderson said. “I hope they do this again in the future.”

Both Henderson and Czarnecki received crowns during Saturday’s grand finale, which took place at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The awards will be on display at New Horizons’ headquarters as a message to the hundreds of participants in the day programs there.

“You can do it,” Henderson said.

Jacqueline Czarnecki, right, wears her crown alongside assistant Eboni Henderson at New Horizons in Autism in Freehold Township.
Jacqueline Czarnecki, right, wears her crown alongside assistant Eboni Henderson at New Horizons in Autism in Freehold Township.

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Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shore’s interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Toms River woman with autism takes home pageant crown