She was finally referred to a pediatric rheumatologist, who tested her for autoimmune conditions and Lyme disease, among other things. One test found elevated levels of inflammation markers in her blood, which helped confirm the diagnosis of JA.

With swollen joints from head to toe, she was told her case was so advanced she was lucky to be walking. “My doctor said it’s a good thing I didn’t give up dancing, because [moving] is what saved my joints,” says Elizabeth.

The Silver Lining
After struggling with severe side effects from her treatments – while on methotrexate she developed a kidney condition that still persists – Elizabeth says her disease went into remission at age 14. She found herself with energy and “a new respect for life” – which she started living to the fullest.

She’d already been volunteering at a local nursing home because she felt a connection with the seniors there. Unlike Elizabeth’s peers, they understood what it was to feel pain and stiffness that interferes with daily life.

But Elizabeth wanted to do more. She wanted to help encourage more interaction between kids and seniors. “I absolutely fell in love with the senior population. There’s so much to learn from them,” Elizabeth says.

She started teaching a weekly dance class to a group of women in the home who had arthritis and dementia. Elizabeth also organized opportunities for local elementary school children to write and hand-deliver holiday cards to the nursing home residents.

Her volunteering pastime turned into a pageant platform when she competed in the Miss Michigan Outstanding Teen program, and later – after a break from pageants to study interior design at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich. – as she competed for the Miss Michigan crown.

While giving speeches across her home state, part of her job as Miss Michigan, she realized how uplifting her story is to children with diseases. Now, as a contender for Miss America 2012, held in January, she has a new platform: giving hope to children with chronic illness.

“Having [JA] made me appreciate all the little things in life,” Elizabeth says. “I want kids in similar situations to know that having a disease is what makes us unique, and it truly is a gift. You just have to have faith in the silver lining.”

Update: While Elizabeth was not crowned Miss America during the January 14 pageant, she was named second runner-up for the Miss America Quality of Life award – a community service award that earned her $2,000 in scholarship money. Congratulations, Elizabeth!