Summit High School crowns homecoming king with Down syndrome
October 16, 2013
"Steven, Steven, Steven, Steven," the crowd chanted, whooping cheers echoing across the stadium.
Down on the football field, Summit High School senior Steven Kennedy grinned and waved to the crowd on a chilly Friday evening. He wore a cowboy hat as his homecoming crown.
Later, on the phone with his older sister Becca, he would just say, "They picked me."
Steven is 19, and at 2 months old was diagnosed with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused by the presence of an all or a partial third copy of chromosome 21. One in 691 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome every year. Typical characteristics include physical growth delays, specific facial structures and developmental or intellectual disabilities.
His mother, Kristin Kennedy, said having her son reach the milestone of his senior year of high school is an equally terrifying and wonderful experience.
"It's exciting, because I've seen him really mature, he's become really fun and fairly independent," she said. "It's scary though because I don't know what's going to happen next."
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At Summit High, Steven sticks to a tight schedule, working with special education teacher and work experience coordinator Rhonda Reichardt. A transition program will allow Steven to stay in school until he's 21, gaining work experience in the community.
"We teach things like independent living and more job training," Reichardt said. "It's like their college."
Walking through the hallways at school, Steven high-fives several classmates as he passes them, stretching just a little higher due to his short bowed legs. Steven has a small chin, a flat, broad face and sports small, round glasses and a wide smile. He says hello to most everyone. They all say hello back. They all know his name.
"I always had a real soft spot for special people and I never knew why," Kristin said. "Well now I know. God did that on purpose, that's why I always felt that way."
When Steven was first diagnosed, his mother said she was in shock. But a low birth weight, lack of smiling and a battle with nursing were all early signs, she said, that things weren't quite right. He was on oxygen for 17 months and was extremely small until he was 9 — Kristin often carrying him because he couldn't keep up.
"[The diagnosis] was a hard thing to deal with, but it did explain a lot," she said. "Things happen for a reason — God put things together in a certain way because He knew it was the best for us."
In guitar class, Steven said he's been learning the instrument for "at least 1,000 years." He prefers guitar to his drum set at home, and is working on the song "A Horse with No Name." He names the chords — E, E minor, C — as his fingers strum the strings.
Steven also is taking swing dancing and an art class on bookbinding. He said he loves dancing, and science too. Seventh period, Steven goes to work at Safeway, facing cans on the shelves.
"I'm busy every day," he said.
When he talks about plans for after graduation, Steven flings his arms out to the side, fingers forming fists, spinning in a tight circle.
"I want to be a superhero," he said.
His mom said Steven lives in his own world a lot of the time, often watching movies and then acting them out aloud to himself, sometimes for weeks on end.
"He can imagine the things he's seen and for him it's like that person is there," she said. "It's so vivid."
At the moment, Steven turns on "Spy Kids" when he gets home from school, after emptying the dishwasher and usually letting the dog outside.
Steven also participates in the youth workshops at the Lake Dillon Theatre Company and goes to youth group at his church in Frisco every Wednesday night.
"His impact is farther reaching than you realize," Kristin said. "I know people who have gone into special ed because they know him, people have figured out what they want to do by meeting Steven."
Besides his work at Safeway, Steven has also had jobs at Einstein Brothers Bagels and other restaurants in the county.
"We look at what types of work will hold his interest," Reichardt said. Steven is great at tasks with repetition, she said.
The high school basketball coach stops Steven on the way to lunch for yet another high-five, while another visiting parent jokingly asks if she needs to bow, since he's the new king.
Sometimes Steven has trouble understanding a question, and will say "Oh boy" to communicate his confusion. He often repeats back words or phrases and his speech comes through garbled at the end of sentences — all part of what his mom calls his accent. It's been difficult for Steven, she said, not having many friends around. Summit County doesn't have a large special needs community, she said, so it's sometimes hard to find options for her child. Still, she's impressed his classmates came together and voted for him.
"He's integrated into this community," she said. "Everybody knows him, everybody loves him."
Kristin said she tried to prepare Steven for if he didn't win homecoming king, showing him videos and pictures of other school's crowning ceremonies and how only one person was picked. That night, she posted a simple Facebook update: "Summit High School did something selfless tonight."
"Friday at the game I was on a truck … they called my name and I got a cowboy hat," Steven said. "It was loud and fun. I felt happy and excited. And surprised."
While Steven's future is still uncertain, for now he's excited to finish his last year of high school as the reigning senior.
"He kept saying, 'Not me,' every time we talked about it," Kristin said. "So it was a really big deal to him. It was authentic to him. It was really cool that he was surprised."
If he does end up becoming a superhero, Steven said he'd want super strength or the ability to fly.
That Friday night, they gave him his wings.