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F.A.I.R. event to honor 'Super Heroes' who improve the lives of others

By Joyce McKenzie, Times Correspondent
Courtesy of Rachel Barcellona
Rachel Barcellona, who will perform Saturday at the YES FAIR, has enjoyed success as a pageant contestant and model despite dealing with autism, a blood disorder and epilepsy.

TAMPA — Rachel Barcellona remembers that as a child singing was the only thing she felt comfortable doing in the company of most people, especially her classmates.

"I was singing before I could even walk or talk," said the Palm Harbor resident.

"The funny thing is that at a very early age I told my voice teacher that the song we were singing was in the wrong key."

Early on her parents, Barbara and Frank Barcellona, contributed much of their daughter's lack of self-confidence and inability to interact well with others to the simple fact that she is an only child with minimal opportunities to mingle with other kids.

"I would take rocks from our backyard, put faces on them and talk to them," said Barcellona, 20.

But even after enrolling her in a pre-school so she could meet and relate with other children in her age group, Barcellona's parents soon learned their child's social adaptability was unlike that of most youngsters her age.

"The teacher called and told us that she was different from the other kids and did not want to interact with them," Barbara Barcellona, Rachel's mother said. "We then had a meeting where she told us Rachel would never have any friends."

But fast forward to a little more than a decade later and most folks would be hard pressed to imagine a time when Barcellona was not fully engaged with a variety of people on a multitude of levels, far too numerous to name in this article.

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Some, though, are especially noteworthy.

With the help of a high soprano singing voice, Barcellona won the Miss Florida International title in 2016, earned the Miss Southeast International title in 2017 and recently took Miss Congeniality honors and placed in the top 10 in the pageant's global contest — despite a broken foot.

Her platform: "Ability Beyond Disabilities."

What's more, Barcellona has sung before large audiences at Madison Square Garden, modeled in several fashion shows that include Fashion Week in New York City, and has been a speaker at the World Arts and Film Festival.

That's all despite living with health challenges, including: autism; a blood disorder that causes her to easily bleed; and epilepsy, a condition in which a grand mal seizure she had a few years ago nearly took her life.

In recognition of her numerous accomplishments the St. Petersburg College sophomore has been chosen to be one of 10 Super Heroes at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Yes! F.A.I.R. (Family Abilities Information Rally) on Saturday (Oct. 7), at All People's Life Center, 6105 E. Sligh Ave. in Tampa.

Barcellona will kick off the free five-hour event — filled with a myriad of resources, entertainment and other activities such as a silent auction and food vendors meant to appeal to folks of all ages and physical and mental abilities — at 10 a.m. with the singing of God Bless America.

F.A.I.R.'S founder and lead coordinator Becki Forsell, who was declared legally blind 20 years ago as the result of a serious car accident, came up with the idea of naming 10 Super Heroes this year as a way to recognize people in the community who've gone above and beyond expectations to improve the lives of others.

Christine Rover, special projects coordinator for the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida, nominated Barcellona. She's personally witnessed the tremendous strides Barcellona has made since coming to the center during her childhood years and taking advantage of all the center has to offer in the way of treatment programs and other resources.

Moreover, Rover marvels at how Barcellona has transformed from a mainly timid and reclusive youngster into a highly engaged, self-confident young woman who now serves as CARD's secretary of the board.

Her values, said Rover, are similar to those of Forsell, in that they both are strong advocates for building inclusive communities.

"Rachel lives those values of believing that everyone is important and that a disability shouldn't hold you back from achieving your dreams." Rover said.

This year's F.A.I.R., sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Hillsborough County, is expected to draw close to 3,000, a far cry from the 325 people it attracted the first year. While the parking is limited at the All People's center, attendees are invited to also use the adjacent King High School parking lot and take advantage of shuttle rides to and from both sites.

Forsell, who said she never envisioned the event would grow like it has, also encourages everyone to dress in their favorite Super Hero attire in accordance with this year's theme.

"The ability to see one person become self-empowered and self-independent was my dream," said Forsell, who credits all the loyal volunteers and vendors for its overwhelming success.

The other Super Hero honorees include Logan Agnew, Albert Appouh, Karen Berkman, Dave Braun, Michelle Gilbert, John Paizis, Dino Scanio, Kitty Wallace and Rover.

Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]