Sunday, September 19, 2010

Homecoming honor for student with Down syndrome unites South Dakota high school

From The Argus Leader in S.D.:

CHESTER, S.D. - Homecoming queen Betsy Daniel (pictured) grinned from ear to ear Set. 16 as she walked through the hallways of Chester Area High School.

She wore a sparkling tiara and a toga made from a white bed sheet, calling out, "Hi," and waving to everyone along the way.

"I'm so excited," she said.

Classmates say her smile and outgoing attitude earned her this year's title because Daniel, who has Down syndrome, is everything a homecoming queen should be.

Sept. 17, Daniel was recognized during halftime at the Chester football game. The event will punctuate a week that has brought unity to the community, joy to the queen and her parents, and hope to the families that know Daniel through Special Olympics.

"The tears of happiness just keep coming," said her mother, Connie Daniel. "I'm overwhelmed that the community and the school would do that for her. I just never thought that would happen."

At first, her family was flabbergasted by the nomination, her mom said. That was followed by the chance to see Betsy crowned as homecoming queen before a crowd that gave her a standing ovation at Monday night's coronation ceremony.

Homecoming King Nathan Winesburg has known Daniel since kindergarten and said it's an honor to be recognized with her as the queen.

"Betsy works so hard at everything, and she's a great person," he said.

"I didn't think anyone deserved it more than she did," said senior classmate Logan Reinhiller, who thinks the honor helped Daniel realize just how special she is. "She's one of the sweetest people I know. She doesn't have any enemies."
Four boys and four girls from the senior class of 46 students were nominated for homecoming royalty last week.

Classmate Kaylie Eich said she and the three other queen nominees told everyone in their senior class to vote for Daniel because they wanted her to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"She earned it, " Eich said. "The fact she won is so amazing. She cares the most; she's the one to appreciate it the most."

When the nominations for royalty were announced on the loudspeaker at school, Daniel's eyes got big, and she jumped up and down after hearing her name. She called her mom right away and excitedly announced, "Mom, I'm a queen."

That night, they made a trip to Sioux Falls, and Betsy picked a purple dress, necklace and shiny black flats for the coronation ceremony. Her parents and older brother John Daniel attended, as did dozens of friends, relatives and Special Olympics teammates and coaches.

When Betsy Daniel was crowned queen, she screamed and jumped up and down, and was ecstatic, classmates say.

Principal Mike Reinhiller said coronation was an emotional time for those who attended.

"They didn't stop cheering. It was pretty cool," Reinhiller said. "It just shows the culture of the school. It made me proud to be part of a great community like Chester."

After the ceremony, Daniel told everyone, "Oh, I'm so happy."

"Everybody is just really touched that kids this age would put aside their own interests and needs to do something special for someone else," her mom said. "The Special Olympics community, those parents were just bawling. It's really raised the hopes and spirits of everybody in the Special Olympics area."

The queen's mom describes her daughter as a typical teenager who is involved with a number of sports on the Brookings Special Olympics team and is a member of her church youth group. She was a Chester varsity wrestling cheerleader as a sophomore and was chosen as Special Olympics South Dakota athlete of the year for 2010. She also competed in the 2010 Special Olympics National Games in Lincoln, Neb., this past summer.

"This girl has just been blessed with so many opportunities," her mother said.

In the Chester gym during senior toga day, Daniel enthusiastically cheered on her classmates during a game called "cheese head," where they squirted easy cheese onto crackers and put them on someone's head and face.

At first, Daniel said, "That's gross."

But then she giggled and yelled, "Way to go, seniors."

Her classmates nominated her to compete in the final hula-hoop contest. She ran to the middle of the gym floor, picked up the hoop, and as it swung around her waist, her friends cheered.

Then there was that big smile again.

"We've told her the kids voted for her because they love her, and she's just feeling good about herself and really feeling good about life," her mom said.