After high school, her time to shine

Teen with Down syndrome came long way

June 02, 2008|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,SUN REPORTER

The young woman stood by the auditorium door, the black cap pinned to her long dark hair, an academic gown draped gracefully around her shoulders. She paused for a moment, then, her head very straight, processed forward.

As she passed a group of exuberant relatives snapping photos yesterday, Margoshia "Mimi" Donaldson was just like any other 2008 graduate of Parkville High School. And yet, in some ways, she is quite different.

Mimi, who has Down syndrome, has overcome more obstacles in her 19 years than many twice her age. With the support of her family and teachers, the young woman has succeeded in inclusive classes, busted her signature moves at school dances and made plans to study on the campus of Towson University in the fall.

"We have never treated her as if she had Down syndrome," said her mother, Margo Haynesworth. "She was always treated like any other child."

Sitting in the living room of her Parkville home the day before graduation, Mimi said the final year of high school was full of challenges and moments of joy. Although she excelled in her special needs classes, her mainstream classes, especially dance and health, were tough. But then there were the fun times - such as the ball she attended in an elegant black-and-white gown, escorted by her big brother.

When asked what advice she would give other students with Down syndrome, Mimi said: "Stand on your own two feet. And don't let anybody judge you."

In Mimi's lavender bedroom, a collage of photos of teachers and friends hangs on the wall next to a motivational poster that says "Determination." Art projects and pictures of her musical idol, Usher, share space on another wall.

On Saturday, the young woman showed her grandmother and great-aunt her karaoke machine, picked up a microphone and sang along to a Chris Brown song. She shimmied her hips, pumped her arms and, in a smooth move, brushed imaginary dust from her shoulders.

"She's very, very social and she's always dancing," said Michelle Patras, an assistant vice principal who oversees the special needs program at Parkville High in Baltimore County.

"She is one of the most enthusiastic, bright, charming students I think I've ever met."

Most of the 1800 students at the high school know Mimi by name, said Kathryn Robinson, a social studies teacher who served as the class of 2008's sponsor. "She's one of those willing, wonderful people that God put on this earth to make everyone else smile."

Mimi's grandfather, Gary Dingle, said that when Mimi was born, relatives were reluctant to tell him about her disability. When he learned the baby girl had Down syndrome, he recalls saying, "She's going to be my star child."

Occupational and physical therapists began working with Mimi when she was just 6 months old, helping her develop motor and speech skills. Haynesworth, who had been working with disabled children at the Kennedy Krieger Institute before her daughter was born, made sure that the girl received as many services as possible.

Mimi was enrolled in a program at Kennedy Krieger as a toddler, then briefly attended the Ridge Ruxton School, a special education facility on Charles Street, before being included in mainstream schools. She graduated from Pleasant Plains Elementary and Cockeysville Middle.

At yesterday's ceremony, she received a "Certificate of Attendance," which is different than a diploma.

Mimi's mom, who is studying for a master's degree in social work, said that she has fought hard to get her daughter the best opportunities. "I'm a barracuda in there," Haynesworth said. "The teachers already know me before they meet me."

When Mimi and her two brothers were little, their parents split up and a network of family and friends stepped in to help care for the children. A great-grandmother who died a couple of years ago used to bathe Mimi, rub lotion into her skin, comb her hair and give her treats - including boxes of fried chicken and fries - that her mother didn't allow.

The little girl seemed frustrated before she learned to speak and her grandfather, Gary Dingle, used to kneel down to her level and say, "Tell me some words, Mimi."

When she did speak, she talked a mile a minute and hasn't stopped since, her grandmother, Marguerite Dingle, said with a laugh.

Mimi says that she would like to be a chef, an ambulance driver or a rapper one day. In the fall, she will begin an occupational program for people with disabilities that is a joint effort of Towson University and Baltimore County Public Schools. She will take classes in life skills and work in a mail room.

"College is going to be cool - walking around campus, drinking coffee," Mimi said and then paused. "But actually, I don't really drink coffee."

Mimi, her big brown eyes shining behind thick glasses, grins when she speaks of fun times in her senior year. She won an award for her soccer skills as part of an allied sports program for special needs students and wowed her teachers with her rap skills.

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