Sam Charpentier blends right in, chatting with a table full of other students at the busy cafeteria at St. James Academy in Lenexa.
The popular 17-year-old senior felt the support of the entire school when he was elected homecoming king Sept. 21.
Just like the homecoming queen at Park Hill South High School, Sam has Down syndrome.
Sam is known for high-fiving everyone he meets, remembering each person’s name and asking about details in their lives.
“If you’ve ever walked down the hall with Sam Charpentier … the meet and greet never ends,” said Assistant Principal Jodie Maddox. “What we have gained from his contribution and gifts and talents — it’s immeasurable.”
At the homecoming assembly, he received a standing ovation from the entire school before he joined the other homecoming candidates in a dance routine.
Sitting with close friend and homecoming queen Kathleen Baldwin, Sam smiled when he remembered the moment he heard his name at the homecoming football game’s half-time ceremony.
“My friends were cheering me on,” he said. “The vote surprised me, and I cried.”
Kathleen wasn’t surprised that Sam won, but she was so focused on cheering for him that she didn’t hear her own name being called as queen.
“I knew every guy in the court was rallying behind him, trying to campaign for him. It was really awesome, because Sam brings more joy to me than anyone I know,” Kathleen said. “Being up there with him, arm-in-arm, it was just a really cool experience. … It was very humbling when they called my name. I never imagined myself in this position.”
She and Sam have been friends since they sat together in theology class their sophomore year and discovered a mutual love of quoting from the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Sam spent his freshman year at Olathe Northwest High School, which he still attends for two hours every morning, as part of a partnership between the two schools.
It is at St. James where his school spirit really flourishes. For the last three years, peer mentors have helped him keep pace in classes such as Spanish, biology and theology.
He also gives his best effort on the sports field. This year he’s playing soccer, but the last two years, Sam played on the football team. One of the things he values most about sports is making friends with the other players.
“He went through full practices. I expected everything out of him. Nobody handed Sam anything. He’s earned everything he’s gotten here,” said John Muehlberger, former football coach and current dean of students at St. James. “If he’s not in the game, he’s the biggest cheerleader … and the other kids see that.”
Other students who have family members with Down syndrome have had an easier time understanding and accepting that condition because they have gotten to know Sam, Muehlberger said.
Currently, Sam is the only student at St. James with Down syndrome. Maddox said the school, recently classified as 5A with more than 700 students, has heard from other families who have children with Down syndrome and are considering sending them to St. James.
Muehlberger attributes the positive experience Sam has had at St. James in part to Sam’s parents, Scott and Jessie Charpentier.
“His parents are some of the neatest people I’ve ever met. They don’t hold Sam’s hand; they let Sam go through the process,” Muehlberger said.
Before Sam started attending St. James, the Charpentiers talked with administrators at both Olathe Northwest and St. James to see how they might partner to create the best experience for Sam.
Now, with Sam beginning his final year at St. James, Sam’s homecoming win seems to confirm that they made the right choice in combining the two school experiences for their son.
“That night was like a perfect night,” said Scott Charpentier. “It was seeing the whole school come together and authentically voting in somebody who’s going to remember it for the rest of their life.”