Southeast Polk Seniors Elect Four Classmates with Special Needs to Homecoming Court

PLEASANT HILL, Iowa - When Julie DeGeest-Theilen was pregnant with her daughter, Jena, she had a lot of hopes and dreams.

"And when I knew she was a girl, I thought all of these great things," she said. "And when she was 18 months, she was diagnosed. And all of it got taken away."

But a little bit was given back Friday, when Jena, a senior with special needs at Southeast Polk High School, joined her classmates on the homecoming court.

"It, well, ruined my whole day at work - because I couldn't work," DeGeest-Theilen said. "But I was like running around telling everybody that she got nominated and stuff, so...I told you I'd cry!"

Between tears, DeGeest-Theilen explains how having a daughter with special needs has kept her from imagining "normal" things like being nominated to homecoming court were possible. She's not the only one crying Friday; Rachel Henry's son, Jason, is on the Autism spectrum - and he, too, was voted onto the court.

"It makes me proud," Henry said. "Makes me realize that my son will go places."

"I didn't expect to be nominated," Jason Henry said, as student body president, Claire Strickland, laughed beside him.

"We had a few students message me and say, 'Hey, can we get these select students' - including Jason - onto homecoming court," she said. "And we just got the message out to all the kids and all the senior class voted for them."

That effort landed Jason, Jena, and two more seniors with special needs - Ashlynn Chiles and Ross Wiltgen - to the court alongside their fellow classmates.

"We think that they're the same as us, and they deserve to have just as much fun their senior year as we do, and we love having them by our side," Strickland said.

Side by side, these seniors are embracing each other in an environment commonly associated with division.

"As much bullying and everything else that goes on these days in schools, and I know that goes on in this school," Henry said. "To have the student body vote for these kids and my son is amazing."

And they're reminding everyone else in the room to focus on what really matters.

"Everybody gets kind of caught up in moving fast and doing their own thing, and being very focused on themselves," DeGeest-Theilen said. "And Jena can't do that, and she makes you stop and enjoy every little bit of every little thing."

It's the little things - like being nominated to homecoming court - that create a pretty big feeling.

"The smile on his face, the look on his face, just told the whole story of how excited and happy he was to see that," Henry said.