For some, being crowned homecoming king or queen would be the pinnacle of one’s high school experience. This is probably the reason why the path to homecoming is often typecast as an extreme cat-fight among the prettiest and most popular girls in school.
The homecoming court at Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield County, South Carolina, however, shattered that stereotype when they walked barefoot to support a fellow candidate with epilepsy.
Nataleigh Deal, 19, not only has epilepsy, she also has Down syndrome. She was one of a number of students vying for the honor of homecoming queen when she suffered a seizure upon her arrival at the school football game. Nataleigh was allowed to attend the event, but was advised by her doctor to avoid heels since her body was still unstable.
When news of the doctor’s guidance reached Miesha Gordon, Nataleigh’s special needs teacher, she reached out to the other homecoming nominees. Fellow candidate Lilian Mann didn’t think twice about shedding her shoes for Nataleigh.
“My first thoughts about walking across barefoot were, ‘Of course, I’ll do it!’ Not only because my heels were hurting my feet, but mainly to make Nataleigh feel better. Nataleigh is such a sweet person and … watching her have her seizure made me want to do anything I could to help her feel like the queen she is.”
Nataleigh’s sister Carleigh recalled, “She was well enough during half time to walk again, but couldn’t wear her heels. So instead of leaving her the oddball out, every single girl on homecoming court took their shoes off, too. The inclusion and love will never be matched.”
Crystal Lotz Hadden, Strom Thurmond’s assistant principal, commended the court for their empathy for someone who is essentially their rival. “When the court learned this, without a second thought, they kicked off their shoes and agreed to walk barefoot as well. I’m honored to know these beautiful young ladies. You are all queens.”
She said that the court’s touching reaction showed that “we are all in this together. I wanted to share with the world, look what we have here in our small town.”
The compassion and understanding was obviously widely felt as the stadium erupted in cheers when Nataleigh was chosen as homecoming queen.
“At that moment when I found out I couldn’t wear heels, I didn’t feel too good. I heard [them] saying my name and [then] I became homecoming queen. I was feeling much better.”
Emotional as it was for Nataleigh, the moment was particularly evocative for Carleigh, who stated that the girls had shown an incomparable kindness for her sister with epilepsy.
“I have cried more times today than I have in a while thinking about how blessed we are to be in a community that loves our girl beyond what we could’ve ever comprehended before Friday night,” she said.
“The news interviews, the love and support we have seen from this community is all more than my mom, Nat or myself ever could’ve imagined. Complete love and inclusion in this world are both still VERY much alive and I pray every child, special needs or not, experiences and expresses them just the same. I am so proud of this kid my heart could burst.”
Dawn Ford, Nataleigh’s mother, added that the seizures began in 2014. “All her life, we have prayed for love, acceptance and total inclusion for Nataleigh. We are so blessed that she is so loved and included. I knew she was loved by her peers, but had no idea the magnitude of how much until Friday night.”
While narrowly avoiding a disaster brought about by epilepsy, homecoming will surely be a night to remember for Carleigh, and not just because of the crown on her head, but because of the incredible show of love and support from her community. Carleigh described Nataleigh’s magical night in the best possible way.
“I am in awe. All my life I have prayed for inclusion and absolute love from the world for my sister, and she’s received nothing but that.”