Monday, November 29, 2010

In Florida high school, teen with Down syndrome just another student, except she is Homecoming Queen, too

The intro to the story in The Florida Times-Union:

In the grand scheme of prayer requests, theirs seemed fairly simple.

Dave and Melanie Stieglitz were asking for friends at their church to pray for the youngest of their three daughters, the one who was born with Down syndrome. Not that they wanted God to change anything about her. To the contrary, they were hoping, praying, to change those around her. Specifically to change her classmates at Fletcher High School. Not all 2,000 of them. Just one.

God, they asked, send a friend to Cara (pictured).

One friend.

Someone to sit with her at lunch.

At the time, Cara Stieglitz was 14 years old, a Fletcher freshman. And if you had wandered into the school and, just at a glance, tried to pick who was least likely to be named homecoming queen, you might have pointed at the girl who was eating by herself.

"As a parent, that pulls at your heart," Melanie Stieglitz said of picturing her daughter sitting alone.

So every Tuesday, she went to school and ate lunch with Cara. And on Sundays, they prayed that someone else would join her.

They never imagined that four years later Cara would be standing on a football field, wearing a purple dress that she and her mother picked out for homecoming. The court already had been narrowed from more than 80 nominees to 10 boys and 10 girls. One by one, the runners-up were announced. Then the king.

Jesse Hughes fits the traditional mold of a homecoming king. Star basketball player, 4.2 grade point average, good-looking, popular. He was the nominee of the senior class.

But the queen ...

Several television stations were there that night, so you may have seen video of the moment. The queen leaping up and down, her grin making the king's grin grow even bigger. Everyone in the stands on their feet. Parents dabbing their eyes. And not just Cara's parents.

The king said his mom was crying.

"And not for me," he said with a laugh.

So beyond prayer, how did this happen? How did Fletcher High become the scene of a story that feels almost too good to be true, like something straight out of a movie script? How did Cara go from sitting by herself in the lunchroom to standing by herself on the football field, the crowd cheering as the time-honored symbol of high school popularity was placed onto her head?

This is Cara's story. But it is also her classmates' story.


Dayle Timmons' friends have been calling her "the Queen" ever since she was the 2004 Florida Teacher of the Year. She is a lifelong special education teacher, now at Chets Creek Elementary. She writes a blog about her experiences. And after Cara Stieglitz was named homecoming queen at Fletcher, Timmons recalled when the teen was entering kindergarten at Alimacani Elementary.

Melanie Stieglitz sat down with school officials, saying she wanted her daughter to be included in a traditional kindergarten class.

"Although inclusion was the new buzz word, it was not really being done in Duval County at the time - at least not with the significant challenges that Cara had," Timmons said.

Although there certainly were some "bumps in the road," by the end of the year everyone was quite pleased with the results. Not just because Cara had made progress learning, maturing and making friends, but because of how she had affected her classmates.

"The other children in that class had learned from Cara," Timmons wrote on her blog. "In fact, they had learned the most. They had learned how to be helpful without doing it for her. They had learned empathy."

Timmons has tried to keep up with Cara. She remembers getting a call from Melanie Stieglitz to tell her that Cara had been invited to her first sleepover. The two women cried about that. When Timmons got an e-mail saying that Cara had been nominated for homecoming queen, there were more tears. And when she saw the picture from that night on the football field ...


Quite a few people, even some at Fletcher, tried to steer her away from going to the Neptune Beach high school. They worried whether she would fit in, whether she would get picked on, whether she'd be safe. Maybe, they said, she'd be better off at Sandalwood, in a program tailored for special needs students.

But her parents were determined this was what was right for her. And even more, Cara was determined.

She always has been. Her father recalls that Cara always wanted to do whatever her sisters were doing. She often failed. But she also often succeeded. She learned to ride a bike (no easy task). She plays soccer, shoots basketball and bowls. And she wanted to go to Fletcher.

"I was scared," her mother said. "You're dropping your child off with 2,000 students. You hear so much bad stuff, you don't really trust other students. I had my doubts."

The doubts didn't go away instantly; It was a gradual process. By her junior year, Cara's mother would still show up on Tuesdays, bringing her daughter lunch. But Cara no longer wanted Mom to stay with her and eat. She had friends sitting with her.

"It became, 'Thanks, bye,'" Melanie Stieglitz recalls with a smile.

Still, it's a long way from having friends to sit with in the lunchroom to riding around the football stadium in a convertible.

Fletcher Principal Dane Gilbert and others say the tipping point - the event that might have ensured Cara being crowned - was something called Challenge Day. It's a national program that integrates into schools and, over the course of several intense days, attempts to break down cliques, open communication and unite students.

The students split into groups and start one exercise by saying, "If you really knew me ..."

If you knew Cara, her sisters have been saying for 18 years, you'd realize how much she is just like everyone else. Only better.