Jasmine Rivera is an outgoing sophomore at Washington High School on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
She likes to play piano, hopes to learn guitar and helps a school security guard remind fellow students that there’s no running in the hallways.
Teachers say she has all the personality traits of well-liked kids — she’s kind, compassionate, charismatic.
She also has Down syndrome.
Last week, a fellow student read a poster to 16-year-old Jasmine about the upcoming Homecoming dance and the corresponding election for the Homecoming court.
Not knowing much about these kinds of popularity contests, Jasmine decided to run for the title of sophomore princess. She launched an ambitious campaign that included posters, hand-shaking and passing out necklaces.
“She worked so hard getting the word out,” said Maura Escherich, who teaches special education at Washington. “I was kind of nervous how she’d take it if she didn’t win.”
But she did. Jasmine won, beating three opponents by a landslide.
“There were so many votes for Jasmine that the election committee told me they simply stopped counting,” Escherich said.
Jasmine’s story is indicative of a trend this high school football season. In Michigan, students at Marysville High School elected Mike Bogumil, who has Down syndrome, as Homecoming king. In Rockford, brain tumor survivor Matthew White was named Homecoming king. And in Denham Springs, La., Meghan Burns, who has Down syndrome, was elected to the Homecoming court at Juban Parc Junior High.
Abby Billips, staff program and safety manager at the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association in Frankfort, said these displays of compassion are proof that people are accepting of differences.
“By seeing people’s abilities, as opposed to their disabilities, we are creating an inclusive environment for all,” Billips said. “It’s a win for both those who have disabilities and those who don’t. It creates opportunities for everyone to grow.”
When the announcement was made at Washington High School’s Friday night dance, Jasmine burst into tears. So did her mother, Ingrid Rivera. So did Escherich.
“The students applauded for a good three minutes,” Ingrid Rivera said. “It was amazing.”
It was the first time in Washington’s history that a special-needs student was elected to the Homecoming court, Escherich said.
Afterward, Jasmine said, “Everyone voted for me. I won. I got a crown.”
She said the event made her very happy — a joy that lasted well into this week, when she still was wearing her crown.
Washington is a high school not without its problems. To name a few, Escherich said, there is racial tension, gang activity and socioeconomic strife. As in all high schools, there also is bravado, apathy and an abundance of cliques.
Yet in the days leading up to the election, Escherich said she overheard an incredible outpouring of support for Jasmine. It was as if her fellow students were touched by her bravery, her determination and her endearing optimism.
“For that one day, in that one moment, everybody came together and did something nice for one student,” Escherich said. “It says a lot about what the students at Washington are capable of.”
Ingrid Rivera is a single mother, and she and Jasmine are born-again Christians. They visit local nursing homes on weekend afternoons.
“Jasmine is very loving and outgoing. She has a lot of compassion for others,” Ingrid Rivera said. “She loves being out in the community.”
Rivera credits Escherich for helping mainstream the special-needs students at Washington.
Escherich said when she started teaching at the school last year, she made it her mission to get the students out of seclusion, something they had endured for many years. She encouraged them to attend school dances and extracurricular activities.
The administration has supported her fully, she said.
Last year was the first time a special-needs student attended a Homecoming event. Now, one is a member of the court.
“It wasn’t so long ago that these kids were expected to be invisible,” Escherich said. “Now they’re being applauded and celebrated for their contributions.”
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423