October 18, 2010

Wonderful Story

I saw this on Yahoo the other day and then another friend of mine sent it to me.

Nice to see a positive story from my home state.

With her tender, small hands, Amanda Aldridge held the silver tiara with a gentle grip. She looked at it again, smiled and placed it in its rightful place – on top of her head.

There she is: Amanda Aldridge, 2010 Homecoming Queen of Tupelo High School.

Aldridge thrives on the look of royalty. The silvery crown presented to her on a special Friday evening at the THS stadium is hers to keep, and she doesn’t plan on putting it away anytime soon.

“She would wear it everywhere if she could get away with it,” said Amanda’s mother, Janice Aldridge.

Rarely does a girl like Aldridge, who has Down syndrome, get an opportunity to win such a coveted honor as homecoming queen. But there’s a special bond between Amanda, a senior at Tupelo High, and her fellow students. They’ve learned from her over the years and included her in many activities.

“When we see her in the hallways, everyone says, ‘Hey, Amanda,’” said Mialee Billingsley, one of her

closest friends. “She’ll say your name and starts hugging you. She’s always happy and always so nice to everybody.”

Their friendship is important to the 19-year-old Aldridge.

“I have lots of friends,” she said. “Boys, boys, boys, girls, girls, girls.”

Election and reaction

Aldridge was one of six senior girls who walked onto the THS football field at halftime of the Golden Wave-Columbus game Sept. 24 with dreams of being crowned the queen of a student body of almost 2,000.

The journey to this point actually began the previous school year, when Aldridge’s closest friends developed a plan to get her on the homecoming court.

“We told everyone to nominate her because we thought if she got on the ballot, there would be no way she wouldn’t get on the court,” Billingsley said. “Everyone knows Amanda and we knew everyone would vote for her if she got on the ballot.”

Aldridge was among the top eight finalists in the nomination process to be placed on the ballot. From that group, six were selected by students to serve as senior maids with one elected the winner.

“We were just honored that the student body thought enough of her just to nominate her,” Janice Aldridge said. “And when she got on the ballot, that just blew us away.”

Amanda enjoyed being a part of the homecoming festivities, which included a ride in a Corvette during the Tupelo homecoming parade down Main Street on Thursday, Sept. 23. The next morning, she received flower bouquets from two of her fellow senior maids.

Decked out in her formal dress (“It was hot pink,” she said), Aldridge was escorted by Jackson Nabors in the halftime ceremony. The capacity crowd in the home team stands, especially the student section, welcomed her with overwhelming applause and cheers.

When Aldridge’s name was called as the winner, she gave a couple of “Yes!” fist pumps and hugged Nabors tightly.

“I was excited,” she said. “It was me and Jackson, and we were so excited about it.”

The response in the stands was even greater, Billingsley said.

“I jumped up and everybody around was screaming and hugging each other,” she said. “We were clapping for her. They said her name, and her hand popped up and like she was pumping the air. She was so excited.”

Louis Aldridge, Amanda’s father, was on the field to present flowers to his daughter when he was touched by the emotional response in the stadium. The following day, he discovered how much his daughter’s crowning touched others in the city.

“They tell me when they announced her as homecoming queen, everybody stood up,” he said. The next morning, I went to the coffee shop. There was a man there who walked up to me with tears in his eyes, crying tears of joy and telling me what a wonderful act this was of the student body of the high school.”

The students at Tupelo High School, Louis Aldridge added, should be commended for their vote and their show of friendship toward his daughter.

“For a student body of nearly 2,000 to come together and elect somebody with Down syndrome as their homecoming queen speaks volumes of their character and attitude,” he said. “They put themselves aside and did something to honor somebody who would not get an honor like this in her life.”

Amanda’s reign

Once the crown was on her head, Amanda didn’t want to remove it. “I wore it the next day,” she said.

Janice Aldridge added, “She wanted to wear it to church on Sunday and to school on Monday. We wouldn’t let her.”

Amanda, however, has taken the crown to “camp” – the Touched by an Angel Ministries and Camp located next to the Aldridge home near the Lee-Pontotoc county line.

The camp’s founder is Amanda’s older brother, State Rep. Brian Aldridge. At Touched by an Angel, children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities can ride horses as part of their therapy. The camp’s creation was inspired by Amanda’s life with Down syndrome and Brian’s own liver transplant, which took place the same year as Amanda’s birth.

As each day passes, Aldridge is enjoying her final year at Tupelo High. She has a busy class schedule and is a manager for the Tupelo Lady Wave girls basketball team. “I like high school,” she said.

Her future plans include working as a volunteer, especially at Touched by an Angel. “I’m going to wear it to camp,” she said of her tiara.

Asked if she thought about wearing the crown during graduation in May, she smiled and looked toward her parents. They quickly nixed the idea. But together, they came up with a more appropriate time and place for Amanda to wear her tiara at Tupelo High.

“I’m going to wear it to Homecoming next year,” she said.

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