Thursday, October 21, 2010

California cheerleader with Down syndrome named Homecoming Queen

From the Contra Costa Times:

When 19-YEAR-OLD Rachel Cooperstein opened a box containing two red roses this past Oct. 15, it was symbolic of much more than her being selected as the 2010 Homecoming Queen of Dublin High School. It was an amazing, uplifting moment that provided a measure of reassurance that today's teenagers have the capacity to be great leaders in the future.

Rachel, a senior at Dublin High, was born with Down syndrome, a birth disorder that occurs about once in every 800 live births in the U.S. It's an affliction that can be debilitating for children who not only face tremendous learning challenges, but must also endure teasing, bullying and more.

But, not only has Rachel been fully embraced by the Dublin High student body, she's also a member of the varsity cheer team where she's treated as an equal with a little extra TLC thrown in.

"DHS students have just shown an amazing acceptance. They are just a loving student body," said DHS Principal Carol Shimizu.

Rachel's mom, Rene Cooperstein, says her daughter's inclusion onto the cheer squad played a huge role in helping Rachel to develop the kind of self-confidence that has allowed her to perform in front of crowds and to be able to walk down the red carpet during Friday night's homecoming game ceremonies.

"I'm no hero," said new DHS cheer adviser Kristine Cousins who, upon taking on the role, immediately altered the selection policy to create a more inclusive squad. "The hero is Rachel's mom for asking (if her daughter could try out for cheerleading). The hero is Rachel for working so hard. The hero is the student body for being so embracing."

The stereotype of highly visible, highly popular cheerleaders being part of a highly exclusive clique doesn't apply at Dublin High says varsity cheer captain Katelyn Pryor. "It's not in any of us to say 'Rachel, you can't cheer.' She's just so spirited and just puts everything into what she does."

During the weeks leading up to homecoming, a groundswell of support for Rachel, who was a Homecoming princess, began to form among the student body, which felt they at least partly wanted to make a social statement. Rumors circulated that Rachel was getting the most votes and was going to be the winner.

"It wasn't like (students) felt sorry for her. She's super sweet and deserved it. I'm so happy," said Olivia Silva, a sophomore at DHS.

Pryor and her cheer squad teammates joined nearly everyone in Friday night's crowd to give Rachel a tremendously loud cheer as she was introduced among the five queen nominees during halftime of the Dublin varsity football game.

Wearing a purple gown, Rachel was escorted from midfield toward the sidelines along a red carpet as the band played in the background. Members of the DHS Irish Guard flag team created a tunnel through which each of the five nominees walked. As she was escorted down the red carpet by her 16 year-old brother Jared, Rachel blew a kiss to the crowd to acknowledge the cheers.

After the introductions, the nominees all stood alongside one another on the sidelines. Each looking beautiful in purple, floral, white, black and animal print gowns, the nominees were each given a gold box with roses inside. All but one contained a single white rose.

As Rachel eagerly tore open the oblong box and held her two red roses high above her head, her eyes -- and the eyes of a lot of people in the crowd -- began to fill with tears. The crowd stood to give her a standing ovation. The other nominees were quick to reach over and hug her.

"Mommy, I can't believe it. I'm so shocked," Rachel told her mom as the two embraced in a special, emotional moment after the crown was placed onto Rachel's head.

Rene Cooperstein says she and Rachel had no expectations that the special 19 year-old would be crowded queen in what some consider a seminal moment in the history of DHS. But Rachel, who's known for coming up with some great philosophical quotes ( may have been extremely prophetic earlier last week when she tried to express to her mom how happy she already felt.

"I love a story with a happy ending," said Rachel — the 2010 Homecoming Queen of Dublin High School.

Dublin lost to Campolindo 31-17 Friday night, but the talk of the school -- and the town for that matter -- has been how Dublin High won a much more important contest than a single football game.