Everybody knows Celeste Ewing. That’s one of the things her teachers and her family have to say about her — when you walk down the street or down the halls of the high school with Celeste, everyone says hi to the friendly 22 year old.
For the last eight years, Celeste, who has Down Syndrome, has captivated her teachers and classmates alike with her winning personality, leadership abilities and openness to others.
Now she is saying a bittersweet goodbye. Like all graduates, there’s nervousness about leaving the nest, and a school that she loved (and that, by all accounts, loved her back). But there’s also excitement for her next chapter, with her family and the community rallying around her, cheering her on.
Celeste was a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School class of 2008, and graduated with her class on an extremely hot day, she recalled this week over an afternoon snack of yogurt and crackers. Celeste lives in Oak Bluffs with her mom, Chris, and their cats, Lulu, Myna and Pearl. Her parents are divorced, and her father, Colin, lives in Edgartown.
“I was in the graduation of 2008. That day is always on a Sunday, and that day was really hot,” Celeste recalled.
“The hottest,” her mom concurred.
At that graduation, “Celeste was with the friends that she had been with since kindergarten in Edgartown,” Mrs. Ewing said, noting that she moved up through the grades with her peer group, with special education teachers working to adapt the curriculum for her.
By law, Celeste was entitled to stay at the school to continue to develop life skills until she turned 22. And so, for the last four years she continued at the school, where she’s worked with her teachers, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapists. She’s also received vision training and adapted physical education.
This spring, she’s transitioned into a new role, working a few hours at the high school every day. It helps to be surrounded by familiarity, though saying goodbye to school has been hard. “Tears,” Celeste said.
“A lot of tears,” her mom added. “You were sad, and other people were sad.”
Celeste said she’ll miss all her friends, and those at the high school said they’re already missing Celeste.
“Celeste is one of those special people that you pass in the hallway and she always says hello,” said Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss. “I’d say we’d miss her, but she’s going to be around.”
“She’s had a wonderful experience at the high school and we’ve enjoyed having her here.”
“She keeps everybody on their toes,” he added. “Celeste made sure that I get invited to the activities that her class has” — for example, a Halloween lunch — “and I always make a point to be there.”
Celeste was born on the Vineyard, and then rushed to Boston because she was born with two holes in her heart. One hole closed on its own; the other required a tiny coil to seal it.
Today, Celeste plays wiffle ball and horseshoes, and she likes horseback riding, bike riding, yoga and dancing. She also enjoys fishing, reading, and all kinds of music.
“No single class could ever teach me as much as Celeste Ewing,” high school physical education teacher Lisa Knight said, growing emotional as she talked about the student she calls “my little pal.”
Ms. Knight first taught Celeste as part of an adapted physical education class — soon Celeste was leading stretches in the middle of the gym. Ms. Knight eventually spent time hanging out with Celeste in her life skills class, and then worked with her last summer, helping her apply for jobs and complete background checks, going shopping, picking basil for pesto and going mini-golfing.
In April, the two received an award from the Cape Cod and Islands Department of Developmental Services Citizen Advisory Board for their teamwork.
“I feel as if she was the teacher,” Ms. Knight said. “Being allowed to be a part of this amazing young lady’s life was a gift . . . it’s Celeste who teaches so many people values and lessons in life.”
At the high school, “it’s lonely already,” she said. Celeste is “always smiling, always laughing, always had a kind word for people.”
Ms. Knight praised Celeste’s sense of humor, and recalled that she said “hallelujah” every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Celeste is a planner who always has a list of things to accomplish, Ms. Knight said. “I call her ‘Ce-list’ . . . when she’s on a mission, get out of her way.”
“It’s so refreshing to see,” Ms. Knight said. “The students at the high school have an incredible amount of respect for her. She’s just Celeste.”
In Laura DeBettencourt’s life skills class, Celeste learned about things like meal planning, safety, transportation, math, cooking and check writing. Ms. DeBettencourt will also be Celeste’s advisor for her jobs at the high school and the Y.
At the high school, Celeste has already started her job, and she lists off her tasks: shredding, recycling, school library attendance, mail delivery and putting together and restocking first aid kits.
To get the job, she went through an interview and application process with high school principal Stephen Nixon.
A job is being developed for her at the Y, where she will start in the fall working in the teen center.
“Celeste is a very scheduled person,” Mrs. Ewing said. “And now instead of where for eight years she was getting up early and going to school and then having free time in the afternoon, her school job doesn’t start until 12, so she’s learning how to shift. It’s taking an adjustment.”
“Yeah,” Celeste agreed.
Mrs. Ewing said Celeste has seen good friends graduate and go on to college. “The high school was almost like your college, you know,” she told Celeste
“I’m really grateful that she has the opportunity to continue to go there and work and stay connected with people she’s formed really good relationships with,” Mrs. Ewing added. “I think the high school has just done a great job as far as pushing Celeste’s skills and her independence and really helping her grow up, and I think next fall is going to be great.”
When it comes to the new job, “It’s selfishly okay with me because she’s here part of the day,” Ms. DeBettencourt said. Already, Celeste’s friend Austin, a student, looks forward to 11:30 a.m., when Celeste arrives for work.
“Celeste had a major impact on all of us here at the high school,” Ms. DeBettencourt said.
In a short time, Ms. DeBettencourt said, Celeste became a classroom leader. She created play lists for parties, and created a job and a high school resume to apply for her job at the school.
“Celeste knows more people in the high school than I do,” she said. “She has a unique relationship with everybody in the school.”
Ms. DeBettencourt said it’s hard to say goodbye to Celeste and other students who have been in the school for eight years. “She’s the only one in the school who can knock on the principal’s door and sit on the couch and start a conversation with him . . . she’s that kind of person.
“Her family is so tremendously supportive,” Ms. DeBettencourt added.
On May 25, what would have been Celeste’s last day at the high school, she and four other student competitors headed out on the 7 a.m. ferry, bound for Mashpee and the Special Olympics. Celeste competed in 10 events, though she said she is best at running, and came home with a medal to add to her collection.
It was also Celeste’s birthday, and “Happy Birthday” rang out from the speakers at Mashpee High School.
The Special Olympics was just one of several events that marked Celeste’s birthday and her transition to something new. She received a round of applause at the last performance with the school chorus, one of her favorite activities. On the Thursday before the Special Olympics, Celeste and other students received balloons that said “good luck” and, like every year, a cake provided by culinary arts teacher Jack O’Malley. This year’s cake was white with “Happy Birthday Celeste” written in purple, with flowers.
She’ll keep in touch through her job at the high school, and in other ways. Celeste said she uses Facebook, “especially with my old friends who are in college and different grades.”
Last week, Celeste reached a hallmark of independence: she took the ferry by herself to the mainland to visit her sister Heather in Plymouth. And there’s lots to look forward to this summer: Celeste will attend Camp Jabberwocky, and in the fall, she will proudly assume another new role: aunt. Heather is expecting a baby in October.
Her father says of Celeste, “I am so proud of her.”
While other kids might have been reluctant to get out of bed and head to school, Celeste “wanted to go to school,” Mr. Ewing said. “If she was out sick, she was so bummed out. She treasures her friends . . . high school was a connection to her friends.”
Celeste’s been through a lot, Mr. Ewing said, but “I feel very confident that she has a very bright future.”
While he admitted to some fatherly anxiety about Celeste leaving the security of high school, he feels reassured by the experience she’s had in high school and by the welcoming Vineyard community.
“Living in this community is just fantastic. I couldn’t think of a better place for her to come into the real world.
“Whatever she does in the immediate future and in the distant future, she’ll be fine,” he said. “And we’ll be there to support her.”
Celeste and her dad have recently started kayaking on Senge- kontacket. After Mr. Ewing got the kayak and they headed out for the first time, he said, Celeste surprised him.
“I didn’t even know she knew how to kayak,” Mr. Ewing recalled. But when they got in the water, “she said, ‘Dad, I’ve already kayaked.’ ”
So off she went, he said, steering the two-person kayak with dad along for the ride — not unlike the leadership role she has assumed in other areas of her life.
“She was just zipping right along,” he said.