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Beauty queens with Down syndrome breaking barriers on the national stage

All three East Tennessee girls got the chance to compete against hundreds of their typical peers.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Erin White comes to life when the music starts playing, twirling around the stage and sparkling from head to toe.

"She's getting used to the crowns," her mother, Kate White, laughed.

The 4-year-old has collected a lot of them since she first started competing in pageants less than a year ago.

Credit: Kate White
Erin White poses for a picture after winning a Miss U.S. Star in the AmeriFest National Pageant.

"She actually picks out dresses by the one she twirls the most in, that's the one we go with," Kate smiled.

For 17-year-old Madison, it's her lipstick beauty queen pants that give her a boost of confidence, even though she doesn't exactly need it.

"I am so stinkin' sassy!" Madison laughed.

Credit: Sherri Woods
Madison, 17, poses for a picture at the AmeriFest National Pageant.

But it's not the outfit that makes the girl. Just ask 21-year-old Alexis who has been competing for years.

"Dressing up and makeup and all, that is not her thing but she just loves being on stage and with her friends," her mother, Karen Alsup, said. 

Credit: Sherri Woods
Madison (left) and Alexis (right) pose for a picture.

All three East Tennessee girls with Down Syndrome got the chance to compete on the national stage recently against hundreds of their typical peers.

AmeriFest, a faith-based pageant association across the country, opened up a category for qualifying queens with special needs for the first time.

RELATED: East Tennessee queens prepping for weekend special needs pageant

"It was a wonderful experience. The other girls were so sweet and kind to our girls," Kate said.

The other contestants rallied around Madison after the evening gown competition got off to a rocky start when she felt uneasy walking in her dress.

"She started crying," Sherri said. "All of the typical girls came over and started talking to her and loving on her and trying to make her feel better."

Alexis, Madison and Erin all competed in the Miss Shining Star pageant, a local special needs pageant that serves as a preliminary for the AmeriFest National Pageant which took place this summer.

Their talents were on full display, and all three girls ended up taking home national titles.

"There are just no words to describe as a mom how it makes you feel in your heart to know that your girls are being respected for who they are and to have them make the friends that they've made and to be on stage with the other girls," Karen said.

Alexis, Madison and Erin are using their platforms to raise awareness for Down Syndrome at the Knoxville Buddy Walk in World's Fair Park this Sunday.

They each have teams raising money to directly support families in the community through the Down Syndrome Awareness Group of East Tennessee.

This year's event will be a drive-thru event.

RELATED: DSAG celebrates World Down Syndrome Day on Facebook

"We'll be in the big blue truck with the big teddy bear in the back just like last year," Kate said. 

In the meantime, the girls are already preparing for the next pageant and showing everyone they're more alike than different.

"I am beautiful. I am smart. I can be anything I want to be," Alexis recited on stage.

"They can do anything," Kate said. "Don't put limits on them. It may take them a little longer, but they can do whatever they put their little mind to."