Down syndrome doesn’t keep this queen at home

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Sarah Hendrixson poses with her mother Janet after winning the title of Egg Harbor Township High School Homecoming Queen Friday night. Photo submitted

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – In a time when bullying is on the tip of every school administrator’s tongue, one student who could easily be targeted for being different got the royal treatment instead.

Sarah Hendrixson, a senior at Egg Harbor Township High School, won the title of 2011 Homecoming Queen Friday night. She received 90 percent of the vote.

Like the other girls who were in contention for the crown, Hendrixson had selected a special dress for the homecoming dance Saturday and was waiting with anticipation for the results to be announced at the football game.

What sets her apart from every other homecoming queen in school and county history is that Hendrixson was born with Down syndrome.


The condition, also called Trisomy 21, occurs when a baby is born with three rather than two copies of the 21st chromosome. People with Down syndrome can have varying degrees of intellectual disabilities, from mild to severe.

“After she was announced as queen, she was so happy she really couldn't speak, which is quite unusual for Sarah,” said Janet Hendrixson of her outgoing daughter. “I think the huge smile made speech difficult.  She had to talk to everyone after the ceremony like a true celebrity.”

As parents of a special-needs child, the event was especially memorable, she said.

“Since she was born, we just prayed that she would be accepted by her peers,” Hendrixon said. “When you have a child with a disability, you expect that as they enter middle school or high school, the intellectual and physical differences will show their head and manifest themselves. As a parent, you hear that your child’s friends will begin to pull away. We’ve had the opposite experience with Sarah.”

Since middle school, Hendrixson has been surrounded and protected by her friends, her mother said.

Her one-to-one teaching aide, Heather Franz, said the teen’s outgoing personality is the reason people are drawn to her.

“She is so active and loving. Everyone knows her – she is very popular,” said Franz, who has worked with Hendrixson since the seventh grade.

Hendrixson, 18, is a member of the winter cheerleading squad, choir and the Key Club, and she participates in all school dances. She competes as a swimmer in the Special Olympics and volunteers at nursing homes. She has attended the prom the past two years and is dating.

Her mother said she and her husband, Tom, always expected their daughter to participate fully in her environment.

“One of the best pieces of advice we received when Sarah was born was from our pediatrician, who reminded us that she is our daughter first. He told us that when she needs to be pushed, push her. When you need to let her back, let her back. Do what every other parent does,” she said. “We have always let her show us what she was capable of or what she wasn’t capable of, but we never expected a homecoming nomination.”

The nomination was announced during a recent pep rally, Franz said.

“The names were all read, and they saved Sarah’s name for last. All of the other girls had people clapping for them, but when they read Sarah’s name, there was a standing ovation. There wasn’t a dry adult eye in the room,” she said.

Franz said the nomination alone was heartwarming and showed the character of the student body.

“People have been asking me if it is sincere, and I tell them 100 percent that it is,” Franz said. “You should have seen the reaction when her name was read. These students have accepted her and learned from her. It’s been an eye-opener for them, and a wonderful lesson that just because someone looks different or acts different doesn’t mean that you can’t treat them the same way. She’s just extra-special.”

Hendrixson’s mother said that back when she was a student, no one in school had a disability or looked different.

“What parents and students went through just 20 years ago compared with now has completely changed; and it’s wonderful to see the acceptance,” she said. “We have had a phenomenal experience with the high school.”

By the time Sarah arrived home Friday night, she “practically passed out,” according to her mother. But just before she did, she looked up at a picture of Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011, hanging over her bed and told her mother, “She is so proud of me.”

“It was a great night for Sarah, and more importantly, it was a great night for the students of the high school, who demonstrated their understanding of Sarah and collectively decided to give her the best week in her 18 years,” she said.

  Sarah Hendrixson stands with her date after being crowned as Egg Harbor Township High School’s Homecoming Queen.

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