Krissy Altersohn, 19, and Tom Broviak, 17, were elected homecoming queen and king at Geneva High School in the fall. (Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune / December 27, 2012)
There were few dry eyes in the gymnasium when best friends Thomas Broviak and Krissy Altersohn, two students with Down syndrome, were elected homecoming king and queen at Geneva High School in the fall.
In the weeks that followed, Broviak insisted on wearing his dance shoes, even during gym class. Altersohn's mom said she saw a noticeable boost in her daughter's confidence and even found her applying makeup in the mirror before school.
"She said, 'I'm the queen. I've got to wear makeup now,'" Kathy Altersohn said.
But as the year comes to a close, the true impact of the teens' honor is still playing out in the suburban community of 22,000, where shop owners proudly tell visitors that theirs is the community that prompted thousands of "likes" on Facebook when the homecoming story went viral. The Broviak and Altersohn families continue to receive congratulations from across the country. And at the high school, what had been little-known programs designed to pair average students with their special-needs peers have doubled, even tripled in membership because students have been inspired by Altersohn and Broviak, officials said.
"Too often, our high school students get a bad rap," Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns said. "But I believe wholeheartedly that we continue to learn a great deal from the youngest people in our community — how to treat each other and what matters most."
Altersohn, 19, grew up attending a mix of special education and regular classes at Geneva public schools. About four years ago, she noticed a new boy in her gym class. Broviak, 17, began at the high school as a freshman after his family moved from central Illinois.
The teens quickly became friends.
"He was funny," Altersohn recalled recently, urging Broviak to also share his impressions as the two sat together on a love seat at her parents' home in Geneva. "You can talk, Tom, come on."
"She was nice," he finally managed, blushing. "I love her."
Through the years, students at the high schools got used to seeing Altersohn and Broviak walking together in the hallways. And last fall, when two members of the student council, Brittany Reynolds and Jasmine Sronkoski, brainstormed the names of students worthy of a homecoming court nomination, Altersohn and Broviak made the top of the list.
"These are two people that care about each other, and you see that," Sronkoski said. "That's what you want your homecoming king and queen to be."
After clearing the idea with Altersohn's and Broviak's teachers, who also alerted their parents, the two girls began a campaign to get the word out. They posted photos of the couple on Facebook, sent updates about them on Twitter and approached computer lab classes in person to urge classmates to vote for the couple online.
"I don't think I heard a single negative reaction," Reynolds said. "Everybody this year got super excited about voting because it was voting for something even bigger than themselves."
The enthusiasm worried Altersohn's and Broviak's parents at first, given stories about bullying and mean-spirited nominations at other high schools that have made headlines. But once assured by teachers and the students themselves that their children were truly being honored, the families were humbled.
"This generation, these young adults, they're changing things," Russell Altersohn said. "They're raised to be more accepting."
And when Pam Broviak watched her son and Altersohn take the throne Oct. 5, the day they were crowned, she couldn't help but feel emotional. As a mother of five other children, she had been advised many times not to expect the same things from Thomas after he was born with Down syndrome.
"Yet he achieved something none of my other children had," Broviak said. "You really can't have preconceived notions of what to expect. Anything is possible."
To this day, Altersohn and Broviak's win comes up in conversations at coffeehouses, City Hall, the grocery store and other popular spots in the suburban community, said Burns, who noted that the story surfaced again this week when a photo of the teens made the front page of the Kane County Chronicle because they were included among the year's top newsmakers.
At their elder daughter's wedding a few weeks ago, a relative told Russell and Kathy Altersohn that Krissy and Thomas' story was used as a teaching example in his education class at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Russell Altersohn said.
And when the high school reopens in January, its Viking Partners program, which allows students to help throw a party each month for students with special needs, will enjoy a growth from 15 to almost 40 volunteers. The school's PE Leadership program, which allows students to work one-on-one with students with special needs in adaptive gym classes, has also seen unprecedented interest.
Amy Singer, who teaches special education at the high school, doesn't doubt that Altersohn and Broviak's win has prompted much of the growth.
"It was just a beautiful event," Singer said. "Because I think these kids were raised among these kids, they don't even look at a student different, ever."
The week after homecoming weekend, Altersohn and Broviak returned to gym class with a weddinglike album of their activities that they were eager to show classmates. Broviak hung the sign from the parade car on the wall above his bed and, to this day, wears his crown around the house.
After all the excitement, Altersohn and Broviak remain as close as ever. At the end of the school day, when Pam Broviak arrives to pick up her son, she's not surprised to see Altersohn waiting beside him.
"I picked them up the other day, and they said goodbye to each other and 'I love you,'" Broviak said.
Reynolds, who will graduate from Geneva High School in the spring, said one of her special needs classmates asked if she might become homecoming queen next year.
"I hope the tradition continues," Reynolds said.