“Growing up, I never wanted to be Miss America, but I knew I wanted to make a difference,” says Miss Idaho Sierra Sandison, who will compete in Sunday’s Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Well, thanks to one widely shared photo, her wish has come true.
The shot showed Sandison, a Type 1 diabetic, wearing her insulin pump in the Miss Idaho competition in July. It propelled the college student into the spotlight and inspired others with diabetes to share photos of their own medical hardware with the hashtag #showmeyourpump.
“I’ve gotten personal messages from people in over 35 different countries,” Sandison, 20, tells PEOPLE.
One of the most moving involved a young girl from Idaho, whom Sandison met after her pageant win. “Her mom’s friend called me and said the girl was headed to the doctor. They thought she might have scoliosis and would have to wear back and leg braces,” says Sandison.
“Apparently the girl asked her mom, ‘Do you think if I get leg and back braces I can try to be Miss America like Sierra?’ To hear that she was okay with wearing a medical device – and also excited – meant so much. I got choked up.”
Sandison says she chose to wear her pump on stage to challenge Americans’ views on beauty norms. “If I were to hide it, I’d be lying to young girls,” she says. “Whether they’re diabetic, have a disability, wear a medical device or just feel insecure – which we all do sometimes – they have to know I’m not just this tall skinny girl who can look pretty in a swimsuit.”
Sandison plans to wear the pump again at this weekend’s pageant. And while she doesn’t plan to do anything flashy with it – “My friends wanted to Bedazzle it, but I’m just going to keep it neutral,” she says – she does hope to continue promoting her cause, crown or no crown.
“I try to show other diabetics it’s possible to live a normal lifestyle,” she says. “And now I’ve been able to take advocacy to a whole new level.”
She’s also had support from Nicole Johnson, Miss America 1999, who was the pageant’s first contestant (and winner) to wear an insulin pump on stage. “Before I ever competed in a pageant, I added her on Facebook; I was a fangirl,” Sandison admits. “She was encouraging about my diagnosis. The night I won Miss Idaho, I messaged her on Facebook and told her I was going to Miss America and wearing my pump on stage.”
Johnson was quick to respond. “She said she canceled her other plans the week of Miss America and booked a flight to Atlantic City,” Sandison says.
Watch Miss America live from Atlantic City on Sunday, Sept. 14, at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. And be sure to vote your favorite contestant into the finals at missamerica.org