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A Special year

By Staff
Breaking down barriers is nothing new for Hartselle's Calista Mitchell
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
Calista Mitchell is getting used to making history.
Calista, 18, first made headlines in 1990 when she became the first student with Down syndrome to be mainstreamed into the Hartselle City School System.
Instead of starting kindergarten at Sparkman School, as most students with special needs did at the time, Calista's parents, Colette and Michael Mitchell, insisted she go to Burleson Elementary just like any other child.
"Calista was totally included at Burleson," Colette recalled. "We all had to wing it for awhile, but her teachers and the administrators were very receptive. The general public treats people how they see others treat people. We just wanted Calista to be treated like any other kid, not hidden away because she was different."
Just like other kids, Calista studied, made friends, played Upward basketball, took gymnastics and dance classes, and was a fifth grade cheerleader during her elementary school years.
Colette said even though she and Michael were thrilled with Calista' s inclusion during elementary school, they soon realized inclusion wouldn't be the best thing for Calista during junior high school.
"We saw the gap getting bigger between Calista and other kids her age," Colette said. "She was still playing with Barbies when other girls her age weren't. We didn't want her to end up just sitting in a classroom and being left behind in learning just for the sake of being included. We still believe in inclusion and are strong advocates for it, but we decided to do what was best for Calista at that time."
Calista, now a senior at Hartselle High School, is still included in regular high school classes, like keyboarding and P.E., but spends most of her time at the Instructional Resource Center where she learns math, science, reading and life skills.
"I stay very busy," Calista said of her time at the IRC. "I have lots and lots of homework."
Calista said all of her teachers at the IRC are her favorite and her favorite school activities are participating in Signs of Courage and being a peer tutor to new IRC student "Shauna K."
"She named herself Shauna's peer tutor," Colette said with a smile. "She never meets a stranger."
Calista's younger sister, Bama, 15, agreed with her mom. "She's not shy. She stands right up front with the senior girls at all the pep rallies and cheers right along. She makes everyone she meets happy."
"She makes people feel loved," Brooke Wallace, Bama's best friend and Calista's "other sister," added.
Bama said she never realized her older sister was "different" until she was in second grade. Since that time, Bama has tried to set an example for friends and fellow classmates to follow when interacting with people with special needs.
"When people put a person's disability before their name, or use the 'R' word, it makes me sad because that person isn't educated about special needs," Bama said. "I want to educate them through the People First program and by example. If people see how I act and speak around Calista, and then they act on that, it just starts a chain reaction."
Colette and Michael believe Calista's spirit and Bama's winning attitude, along with many years of inclusion, is the winning combination that recently helped Calista make history yet again.
"I wasn't expecting good news when I got a call from the school," Colette said. "Then they asked me if I would like to be there when they informed Calista that she had been named the senior homecoming attendant."
The 2004 Hartselle High School senior class had written Calista in as their pick for the 2003 senior homecoming attendant, making Calista the first student with special needs to ever be elected to the school's homecoming court.
"We did great," Calista said of her and her escort, senior Dustin McNutt. "I loved it."
"The seniors have a lot of class," Michael said. "I'm just so proud of them, and Calista. This never would have happened, they never would have known her, if we hadn't learned to be assertive and work with each other to have Calista included at school."
"Calista didn't get on the homecoming court because she has Down syndrome," Colette said. "She got it because she's outgoing and friendly. She wouldn't have gotten it, though, if we hadn't have pushed for inclusion. The kids would never have known her otherwise."
Colette, Michael and Bama credit much of Calista's positive school experience to her classmates.
"They're just good kids," Michael said.
Calista's homecoming headlines and television coverage led to another historical moment for the teen. Tamyra Yarbrough, coordinator for North Alabama's first National Down Syndrome Awareness Buddy Walk, contacted Colette and asked Calista to be the event's first ever grand marshal.
Saturday, Oct. 4, Calista wore her homecoming sash and a tiara and led approximately 500 children and their families in a Buddy Walk march around Huntsville's Big Spring Park.
"I'm having a great time," Calista said at the event as one of many admirers stopped to have their picture made with the local star.