The power of belonging.

photos by Kristine Hayes and Katey Klucking

The night is a pleasant 68 degrees, but heat emanates from the bright stadium lights, and I’m damp beneath my Rock Bridge High School T-shirt. My boots clink on the aluminum steps as I climb past the student section and up the bleachers. A few people in the stands wave and others call out “Good luck!” I slide into the seat my husband, Steven, had saved for me while I helped our daughter, Sydney, execute the night’s events. “She’s ready,” I say, glancing at the scoreboard. A minute thirty left in the half. Steven pats my leg. “But are you?” he says with a smile (Steven and Lisa pictured with Sydney below).

From our perch, I see her on the sideline with the rest of the homecoming court. Stunning in a full-length navy dress and silver pumps from the children’s department, she wears a white sash like the other nine lovely, accomplished candidates. Suddenly she punches an arm forward and stomps her foot. “What is she doing?” I say. “Oh, no. Is that the whip? Or is it the nae nae?” I prepare to bolt down to the field, but Ethan is on it. Her escort takes her hand and gently tucks it into his elbow.

This sweet young man (pictured below), handsome in his brand-new suit, is a fellow cheerleader, but more, he’s her friend. Throughout the years there have been many — Raegan and Lindsey, Katey and Jordan, the kids who saw Sydney first and her disability second. “Thank God for Ethan,” I say to my husband. “Come on Syd, keep it together,” I whisper nervously.

When Sydney was born with Down syndrome, we had no idea what to expect. A cherubic baby with coppery red hair, an adorable button nose and sparkling blue eyes, she loved people and dancing and food. Not much has changed in 18 years, except now we know what a gift she is. Sensitive and compassionate, Sydney regards herself and others without judgment; she accepts everyone just as they are, though the reciprocal has not always been the case.

Inclusion with her developing peers is a priority, which often means me going along to parties and field trips and dances, sleeping in a cabin of seventh grade girls at science camp, and learning the routine for cheer tryouts. Observing the kids in their natural habitat, I’ve seen the bravado that masks their insecurities while revealing an awkward and touching innocence. They’re all searching for their place in the world by measuring themselves against one another. They all want to be accepted. Sydney is no different; she’s just more transparent.

I remember the day she said to me, “Mom, somehow I’m a little different,” with a look of resignation so full of knowing I wanted to wrap her in my arms and never let her go. But to champion her true potential, I’ve had to do just that: let go again and again, tempering my instinct to protect her and instead empower her to be herself, even if it risks rejection.


Last night, I fell asleep on the couch, exhausted by the activities of homecoming week. My phone buzzed, startling me awake with a text from Sydney in her bedroom.

I feel very emotional [crying emoji] and I’m literally FREAKING Out

I’m so proud of you. It’s a big day tomorrow!

Thanks mom I am praying for you [prayer hands emoji] thanks for all your supports and needs you deserve to have an awesome award [gold medal emoji] goes to you I mean it you did it you helped me through times and lots of supporting so thank you mom you are great I love you so much

Mothering a child with special needs brings the same unbearably exquisite moments coupled with the same painful heartaches, the same sleepless nights, the same anxiety.

I love you, too, honey. You are fabulous.

Thanks mom I love you more than cheese [cheese wedge emoji]

And mothering this one always brings a smile to my face.

The time has arrived. The announcer begins introducing candidates alphabetically. Sydney’s last name puts her at the 50-yard line. “And now, the 2017 Homecoming Queen is . . . ” The words echo across the football field in a pregnant pause. “Sydney Kent!”

We’re on our feet as the crowd erupts. The students roar. Sydney’s big sister squeals. Her dad beams. Ethan picks Sydney up and swings her around, a genuine princess moment. The crown placed on her head slips down over her eyes and she’s rushed by screaming cheerleaders, claiming her as their own.

Awestruck, a deep quiet holds me still. I find it profoundly symbolic; as she’s experiencing this ultimate gesture of acceptance, I’m far away, watching. Sydney is on her own. My heart fills with gratitude for this community and hope for our collective future. With their vote, these beautiful kids said: “We see you. You belong with us.” And that message doesn’t just change her; it changes them. It changes all of us.

My friend in the row below turns around and jubilantly places both hands on my face, saying “Oh, my gosh, Lisa! You better get down there!” My reverie is broken; everything shifts into fast forward as I make my way down the stairs, laughing through my tears.

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