The high school experience. It’s something that collectively we all share. For some, it’s a time of great joy, of accomplishment, of getting a jump on what will become a lifetime of successes. For others it can be filled with great sadness or heartbreak. The teen years are typically turbulent for most, but by and large we all get through them, and they can even be great inspiration for novelists and songwriters.

Trish Byrne had no idea what the high school experience would be like for her youngest daughter, Chloe, when Chloe entered Middle Township High a few years ago. Chloe isn’t like other kids — she was born with Down Syndrome, which can cause a wide range of developmental issues. But Chloe, a member of the Panthers’ cheerleading and dance squads, has never seen herself as different. She has a zest for life that can brighten anyone’s darkest day and with her unwaveringly positive attitude, she has become one of the superstars in the hallways of her high school.

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“She had a lot of energy as a kid. We did some dance classes when she was younger and she was always running. We also did Upper Township Challenger sports, where they did soccer and baseball. She’s always been super active. She also does beauty pageants,” said Trish, who, along with her husband, Geoff, graduated from Middle Township High. “We did not know until she was born that she had Down Syndrome and we didn’t know much about it. We kind of learned as we went. At first, in the baby stage, it’s not much different, but once they get a little bit older the milestones don’t come as quickly. She learns a little bit more slowly, but she’s certainly capable of learning; she just learns a little bit differently.”

At first, when Chloe was a baby, she wasn’t much different than any other baby. The differences became more apparent as she began to enter school, and there were some struggles socially as a young child. That’s what had Trish worried about sending her daughter off to high school. Would other kids accept her? Would they mock her and ostracize her? Would all the confidence Chloe had built up until then through sports and beauty pageants be wiped away by a couple of mean-spirited teenagers? Those kinds of thoughts weighed heavily on she and Geoff, Trish said.

But the Byrnes’ experience at Middle Township has been anything but stressful. In fact, it’s been the complete opposite. Chloe, now 18 years old, is thriving in an environment that not only accepts her, but embraces her talents and infectious attitude.

“When she was very young, people didn’t really know the difference, but once she and her peers got a little bit older it was always a struggle with the social life. The social end is where the struggles came for us, and for her, which is why it’s so nice that in high school she belongs to so many clubs and is very widely accepted. Chloe has always been larger than life. We like to say ‘this is Chloe’s world and she just lets us live in it.’ She’s super gregarious, happy, very confident and very loving, and she rarely has a bad day. She’s a great teacher in terms of teaching us how we should look at the world. She’s always happy,” said Trish, whose oldest daughter, Madeline, is 19 and away at college. “I have been over the moon happy with her experience at Middle Township High School. I was super nervous for her to go to high school, but it has exceeded my expectations. She’s well accepted and I feel like the faculty is very supportive. The fact that she’s been able to do dance and cheer — two things she really loves — has been really great for her. We haven’t gotten a chance to see her cheer at a game this year, but the three previous years she’s been on the cheerleading squad we would get to go watch her, and it was cool to see her getting that high school experience. I really wasn’t sure when she was growing up what (high school) was going to look like for her. You have a vision in your mind of how your children’s school years are going to go, but high school has definitely exceeded my expectations.”

“Her and my son did their first communion and a lot of stuff through the church together, she’s been in my class. Chloe is wonderful. I love that she’s been involved in so much in terms of the cheerleading and the dance squad. She’s just one of those kids who is so fun to be around and is so willing to give her time to try to help people. She’s really a joy to be around,” said John Leahy, the Middle Township girls basketball coach who also happens to be Chloe’s favorite teacher, as he teaches a life skills class that Chloe is a part of. “Our kids can certainly learn a lot from being around Chloe and just having that enthusiasm for life and an energy to be involved and have fun. I know we weren’t able to do it this year, but my girls are always involved in the (Upper Township) Challenger Program and we always have basketball clinics at the school for some of the special needs students. I think it’s a great way for our kids (on the basketball team) to be grateful for what they have — and who they have — in their lives. I can honestly tell you that myself, and really everybody in the Middle Township community, has been impacted by Chloe, and it’s wonderful to be around her and share time with her.”

Leahy said there’s no better place for somebody like Chloe to go to high school. There is a very diverse student population at Middle with many different races and family backgrounds. And there is a lot of school spirit since so many of the athletes play multiple sports and also are involved in other school functions and community service projects.

“At Middle Township we have kids of all different backgrounds and all different learning levels, but we are so inclusive,” Leahy said. “There is not one kid in that building who isn’t welcomed to a sports team, or a club, or an activity. I think that’s great. You can go up and down our programs and you’re going to find a diverse group of kids who are all in different situations, but they are all wonderful kids who want to get to know each other and make an impact on our school community. Chloe has certainly been a huge part of that and I think everybody at Middle has welcomed her with open arms. The kids love her.”

“I love to have energy because it makes me happy and makes me be loud and feel free,” Chloe said. “I have lots of favorite moments (at Middle). I get a lot of support at the school, I have amazing teachers and amazing friends. I love dance and my Everyday Life teacher, Mr. Leahy. He’s always there for me and he always tell me, ‘you can do this’ and ‘try your best.’ My favorite music has to be Taylor Swift because I went to her concert two times and have her merchandise. My mom surprised me to see her concert.”

Chloe loves doing her thing as part of the cheer squad for the boys and girls basketball teams and she’s been out there for the past couple of years, learning all the moves and cheers along with her teammates. Trish said Chloe’s teammates, and all the students at Middle, probably have no idea how much it means to the Byrne family simply to include Chloe in their daily activities.

“I don’t know that there are words we can say (to the other students). It has really meant a lot that there have been kids who have really embraced her and are willing to be patient and accepting,” Trish said. “I would say to the kids who aren’t sure to just give her a chance. She takes a little extra time but she’s a great kid and can be a great friend.”

Chloe, like many kids her age, has a lot of hopes, dreams and plans for life beyond high school. She hopes to someday become a teacher, like Mr. Leahy, so she can help kids learn. But she’s a bit torn, because she also wants to move to California to become a YouTube star. (No word yet on whether Geoff and Trish have considered a move to Los Angeles).

“My dream is to go to California. I want to be a YouTuber,” Chloe said. “My dream is to be a YouTuber and other YouTubers are in California, so that’s where I want to be. I’d also like to start a food truck to serve different diets. I also want to be a teacher because I think teachers are great because they help students achieve their goals. I want to teach high schoolers so they can go to college and achieve their goals someday.”

Those are some lofty goals, but Trish has no doubt her ambitious daughter can achieve anything she sets her mind to. For now, the family will focus on finishing out the 2020-2021 school year and enjoy getting another chance to see Chloe perform, as parents have recently been allowed to start attending high school basketball games again.

“She’s our little ray of sunshine. She tries her hardest and just wants to be like everybody else. She wants to be treated just like everyone else,” Trish said. “I just think about how far she has come from that first day putting her on a school bus when she was 3 years old, and she cried, and all I could think was, ‘holy smokes, how is this going to go?’ I think about how far she has come and how hard she has worked, and the great support she has had. It’s going to be bittersweet (leaving Middle Township High). We’ve been fortunate to have a good experience.”

How does Chloe hope she’s remembered in the halls of her high school once she has moved on? She has a simple answer to that question.

“I want to be a person who thinks about positive stuff. Believe in yourself, always trust in yourself.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays