- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

GREENWICH, Conn. (AP) - Izabela O’Brien had competed in pageants in college and carried her beauty queen dreams into adulthood. But for years that’s all they remained.

That was until years of friends’ affectionate teasing and encouragement led her to a Foxwoods stage in March, where the Greenwich resident was crowned Mrs. Connecticut America.

“I saw the faces of all three of my girls and I just knew it was the right time,” O’Brien said. “It didn’t matter that I was one of the oldest contestants or it was 20 years since I had done my last pageant. I saw their faces and they were more nervous than I was.”

In September she will compete in the Mrs. America contest. It will be hard, she said, for the experience to equal the thrill she had winning Mrs. Connecticut. But it will help her to further the sense of mission she felt that night on stage, looking out at her children.

“I knew my purpose was to be there and have a voice for my daughter and other girls and boys like her,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien last year founded The Fearless Angel Project, which provides help to families looking for support and resources for autistic and developmentally challenged children. It was created in honor of O’Brien’s daughter Alina, who was diagnosed in 2007 with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, an autism-spectrum condition.

The project is holding an inaugural benefit luncheon June 18 at Greenwich Country Club.

O’Brien said she remembers every detail about the day she and her husband received the news about their then 2½-year-old, first-born daughter.

“That was the moment in my life when I fell to my knees,” O’Brien said. “We walked out of that pediatrician’s office and I remember standing in front of the elevator and it’s like yesterday. I fell to my knees because I looked at my beautiful little girl and said, ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do?’”

Alina’s mother went through shock, denial, anger and action- all within a week. Action, said O’Brien, is where she has always thrived. She and her husband immediately began working to make sure their daughter got everything she needed.

“I feel better when I am doing something to help,” O’Brien said. “We were scheduled to go on vacation two weeks after this happened, and my husband and I at first weren’t going to go. But we looked at each other and we said we need to stop right now. She’s a beautiful girl and she’s healthy.”

They vowed to learn all they could about Alina’s condition. O’Brien threw herself into the task of making sure Alina got the specialized therapy she needed.

“I knew I was going to have to take matters into my own hands and I wanted the best for my little girl,” O’Brien said. “She started full time therapy right away. She got (applied behavior analysis) therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, horseback riding therapy.”

O’Brien said she and her husband quickly learned how little insurance is willing to cover neuro-developmental disorders. ABA therapy alone can cost up to $150 an hour and 40 to 50 hours a week is recommended at a minimum.

“We were in shock when we got those bills,” O’Brien said. “We didn’t know how people did it. We found a way though, and the reason I call this The Fearless Angel Project is when you’re in this type of position, you have good friends and your spouse and family members supporting you.”

Then there were Alina’s therapists and the teachers.

“They were so welcoming and loving to my daughter that I call them Alina’s angels,” she said. “They were fearless. No matter what kind of a day she was having they would have a smile on their faces and a good energy.”

O’Brien said she and her husband, who owns a manufacturing company, were fortunate enough to have the resources to afford all the therapy, schooling and support Alina needs, but other families are not so lucky.

“They need resources and they need access,” O’Brien said. “Not all children are able to get into these therapies- not because parents aren’t willing, but because they don’t have those resources.”

Proceeds from the June 18 luncheon will go toward funding a scholarship to pay for therapy for one child. O’Brien said she wants to do more in the future to support more families in need. She wants parents of children like Alina to know they have a place to turn to for support and to have their questions answered.

“I want to give back the opportunity my husband and I have had for our daughter,” she said. “People have looked at my daughter and said they would give anything to have their child progress the way Alina has.”

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Information from: Greenwich Time, http://www.greenwichtime.com

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