GRAFTON — As the iconic piano riff to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Belivin’” played in Cedarburg High School’s gym on Oct. 1, Chad VandenHouten and Angela Rehfeldt, both 17, danced together after they were recently elected to the junior class homecoming court. Chad and Angela have been close friends since elementary school and both have Down syndrome.
“She’s my sweet cucumber and queen,” said Chad, in an interview with the Catholic Herald at his Grafton home the day after the dance.
The homecoming court was announced Sept. 30 during an all-school pep rally. That evening the couple rode in a convertible through downtown Cedarburg for the homecoming parade. Chad also led the cheers for the student section at the football game as the Bulldogs defeated Germantown, 35-28.
“Chad is everybody’s friend; he’s the opposite of shy. The student body organized the election for the homecoming court,” said Joy Conway, a special education teacher at Cedarburg High School and parishioner at St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls. “Chad and Angela won by a landslide; it wasn’t even close.”
Chad and his family are members of St. Francis Borgia Parish, Cedarburg, where he serves as an usher and cross bearer for the 6 p.m. Sunday Mass.
“I don’t like morning Mass; it drives me nuts because I have to wake up early,” said Chad, who plans to be confirmed next year. “At church, I like to pray a lot, especially for my friends and family.”
The VandenHouten family moved to Grafton when Chad was 1 and immediately felt at home with the community at St. Francis Borgia. The family has two older daughters, Erica, 24, communications director for the school of nursing at the University of Missouri – Columbia, and Lauren, 22, a senior at Loyola University, Chicago, who attended St. Francis Borgia School, where Chad became an important presence for their sporting events.
“All the girls love Chad; the coaches would let Chad sit on the bench and include him in the huddles,” said Chris VandenHouten, Chad’s mother. “One time the girls lost a tournament and were crying, so the coach asked Chad to cheer them up. St. Francis Borgia was really the beginning where Chad felt included.”
Chad’s sisters attended Divine Savior Holy Angels High School, where Chad was regular spectator on the sidelines of rugby games. The girls would often read books to him or exchange stories in between their rugby matches, according to his mother.
“When you have a kid with special needs, you realize there are a lot of nice people in the world and it’s not something you plan on,” said Randy VandenHouten, Chad’s father, executive vice president and CFO for Shelter Mortgage Company, LLC, Milwaukee. “You need to pray for help and guidance because you don’t have a playbook.”
Chad is a member of Cedarburg’s Best Buddies program, which forms life-long friendships between students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their peers. The school has 13 students with special needs involved in Best Buddies.
“The Best Buddies program started at Cedarburg about 10 years ago; currently there are about 30 students who want to volunteer for our program this year,” said Dawn Rosewitz, a special education teacher and the Best Buddies coordinator at Cedarburg High School. “A lot of the students have maintained their friendships after they have graduated.”
At school Chad participates in the drama progam and was the manager for the girls basketball team last year. He is also involved with various athletic programs outside of school. He plays third base for the Challenger special needs baseball team through Grafton’s Little League and participates in the Ozaukee County Special Olympics where he plays center for flag football and in basketball. His flag football team recently won the Special Olympics bronze medal.
“Last year I got to be on the Bucks’ court during halftime with my Best Buddy,” said Chad. “I got to high five all the Bucks and I talked to Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks. He said I was the coolest kid in Milwaukee.”
Chris is treasurer and member of the board of directors for Milwaukee’s Gigi’s Playhouse, an achievement center that aims to change the public’s perception about people with Down syndrome.
“Individuals with Down syndrome are only limited by the people who limit them. They have unbelievable talents and gifts and they just need to be encouraged to show them and use them,” said Chris. “Doctors have a horrible way of delivering the news (of a Down syndrome diagnosis), by telling parents what their kids can’t do as opposed to what they can do. It’s a struggle to get that perception changed, but we’re trying to do it every little bit at a time.”
Chad can remain at Cedarburg High School until he is 21, but he has his sights set on attending college.
“I want to go to Clemson; it’s always been my favorite school,” said Chad.
Clemson University in South Carolina offers a two-year certificate program, ClemsonLIFE, designed for students with intellectual disabilities who desire a postsecondary experience on a college campus. According to ClemsonLIFE’s mission, “Clemson University is to provide a coordinated course of study that includes career exploration and preparation along with self-awareness, discovery and personal improvement through a framework of courses, job internships, and community participation.”
Concordia University Wisconsin has a similar program, — the Bethesda College of Applied Learning, which began in 2014. It focuses on academics and employment; students live on the Concordia campus in integrated residence halls. The program is a joint effort between Concordia University and the Bethesda Lutheran Communities, a non-profit based in Watertown.
“College is a goal we have. There are more and more colleges that are announcing these types of programs every year,” said Chris. “He really has his sights set on Clemson but we would like him closer to home.”
As Chad and his family contemplate his future, he enjoys reliving his experience from the homecoming weekend and he looks forward to going to prom with Angela next spring.
“You realize the world needs a lot more of what Chad has; he supports and really cares for others,” said Randy. “It’s probably God’s way of telling us to not take ourselves to seriously because we can all learn from Chad.”