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MOUNT ZION — In a world that some believe is full of youth violence, bullying, selfishness and entitlement, Mount Zion and Warrensburg-Latham High School students are showing the world a side that is filled with exceptional thoughtfulness and acceptance.

The homecoming king at Mount Zion was Tristan “TJ” Pruitt, who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy.

The homecoming queen at Warrensburg-Latham was Ashley Cain. She has Down syndrome.

Each of the 18-year-old seniors was selected by the popular vote of fellow students.

Not too long ago, Tristan and Ashley would have been segregated in a specialized school outside the realm of mainstream education.

Disabled since birth, Tristan has a never-ending smile. He communicates with a computer, punching out words and sentences with his fist. “I had a blast at homecoming,” he types. “Thousands saw me on TV. I was famous in six states.”

Tristan responded that his homecoming experience “was an unforgettable experience.”

“He’s an overachiever,” praises Ben Davis, activities director. “He’s very, very pleasant to be around; he brings a smile to everyone.”

He helps the athletic department keep statistics; he helps out in the school office during afternoons, doing whatever is needed. In the office he’s called “Junior.”

How does he get along? “He’s as close as bark on a tree with the students,” is the official word.

“We had a wonderful time at homecoming,” said Marie Schollmeier, the homecoming queen. “I rode on the back of Tristan’s wheelchair. It was so cool.”

At Warrensburg-Latham, Ashley Cain has a three-word answer about homecoming: “I loved it.”

When Ashley was 3 years old, she was in prekindergarten classes at Sunnyside School in Decatur. She started kindergarten at Warrensburg-Latham and has been there ever since.

“During the last 12 years, the kids have always made her feel special,” reports special education teacher Christie Allen. “Ashley’s dream was to be the homecoming queen. The kids made it happen. They don’t see her as different.”

Principal Ken Hatcher said Ashley “fits right in. She has a strong personality. She’s an achiever. I wish all of our students were as successful as Ashley.”

Her classes include government, English, physical education, math. She also works as an aide in the prekindergarten group and hopes to be a pre-K teacher in the future.

When Ashley was competing in Special Olympics events in Normal, Warrensburg-Latham students were there to cheer for her. Ashley competes in basketball, bowling and track and field, despite her small stature at 4 feet, 8 inches. She also rides horses.

During a powder puff football game that was a part of homecoming activities, she scored a touchdown as her teammates ran beside her.

Both schools provide shining examples of what acceptance truly means.

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