Rolling diva: East Point woman competes for Ms. Wheelchair America

When you die, your grave marker will have the date you were born, a dash and the date you died.

To Leslie Irby Peoples, it’s the dash that matters most.

“That dash is what truly defines you,” said Peoples, who takes online graduate classes in clinical rehab counseling. “That dash is your life. You have no choice but to live it.”

The 25-year-old East Point woman was seriously injured in an accident on a two-lane Alabama road in 2013 that left the driver of the other vehicle and Peoples’ 16-year-old sister-in-law, an aspiring basketball player, dead. Peoples was paralyzed from the knees down.

At a time in life when most young adults are embarking on promising careers after college, Peoples, who lives with her mother and sister in a comfortable ranch home, had to learn how to live again.

“Instead of running, I’m rolling,” said Peoples, who calls herself a “wheelchair Barbie.” “I’m not stopping, just slowing down.”

In July, Peoples will compete in the 44th annual Ms. Wheelchair America pageant in Iowa as an independent delegate from Georgia. Contestants are not judged on beauty, but their advocacy work, personal interviews, poise, speeches and demeanor. Whether or not she wins, Peoples will help develop the program in the state.

There are a few prizes for the winner, including airline tickets and “the responsibility that goes along with the title.”

Participants pay an entrance fee of $1,850, which covers the hotel, workshops, activities and most of the food, for each woman and a companion. Transportation costs to Iowa are additional.

Peoples is “uber excited” about taking to a national stage to inspire others in the same situation and has started a Go Fund Me fundraising page to help pay expenses.

“I’ve lain in a hospital bed,” said Peoples, an exuberant young woman, who donned a hot pink dress, sparking tiara and sash during a recent interview. “I’ve been on those respirators. I’ve heard the bad news just like you. I want people to know we’re out here and we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Contestants must be at least 21 and must use a wheelchair all the time, outside of the home, said President Shelly Loose. There are 28 women participating this year.

“I see these women when they first get the title and then they realize what the title is really about and they start to get passionate about their platform,” Loose said. “You see this growth.”

Loose, a former educator, suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident nearly three decades ago and is paralyzed from the chest down.

For the winner, “it’s a huge responsibility because she’s representing all people with all disabilities to bring awareness and break stigmas,” she said.

The day everything stopped

It was a sunny morning for the roughly two-hour drive from their home in Daleville to Auburn University, where her sister-in-law, who was visiting the couple, planned to attend a basketball camp.

Peoples said her husband, from whom she is now separated, was driving, she was studying for a chemistry test and her sister-in-law was in the back seat.

Cresting a rise, Peoples caught a glimpse of a truck on the other side of the road. She doesn’t remember seeing the gold minivan, driven by a mom trying to get her sons to work, as it tried to go around the truck.

There was no way to avoid a collision.

“I just remember everything was in slow motion,” she said.

She screamed. Then everything stopped.

Peoples remembers the dull pain in her back as if someone had punched her. She recalls wearing a honey brown wig. She remembers the extreme heat and the wide-eyed expression of the good Samaritan when she pulled off her wig and asked him to call 911 and her mother.

Her sister-in-law later died of her injuries.

Peoples was in the hospital for two weeks. She didn’t start to truly grasp the extent of her injuries until she was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

‘My way of being my own individual’

What one immediately notices about Peoples is that she is always smiling. She said her faith in God sustains her through everything that has happened and will happen. The accident has made her focus on what’s important in life.

“The biggest thing is I don’t complain,” she said. “There’s nothing I have to complain about. Yeah, granted, I’ve been through, excuse the word, hell, but someone else’s hell has been much worse than mine. I just want to live and be happy.”

She warns people that she is as much of a diva as she was before.

When the staff at the Shepherd Center brought her a dark green wheelchair to use, Peoples told them that green wasn’t really her color and asked for a pink one. “If I’m going to roll, I have to be cute,” she said.

To decorate her wheelchair, she used medical stretch bands and glow sticks.

“It was uber-crazy!” she said. “This was my way of being my own individual outside of being part of this group of wheelchair users.”

Her mom, Lisa Irby, is her biggest supporter.

“I think Leslie has the ability to reinvent herself, no matter the circumstances,” said a tearful Irby.

Peoples drives a red Kia Optima she named Shelby. She wants to start a rehab counseling program after graduation. She blogs. She likes going out with friends. She’s helping plan a Las Vegas outing for herself and other young women she mentors this fall. She calls it “an all-wheelers” trip.

Then her expression turns serious.

“I took my tragedy and truly turned it into a triumph.”

Yes, she decided a long time ago, it was time to smile.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.