ZIONSVILLE, Ind. — She was sitting in the backseat of the family car with her two sisters when AnnCatherine Heigl was first told she wouldn't go to college.
There were a lot of tears.
The Heigl family was driving back to Zionsville after a college visit for AnnCatherine's older sister, Lillie. Their mother, Laura, turned around in the passenger seat when AnnCatherine started listing the schools she'd like to go to.
Ball State, maybe Butler, she said, naming places her friends went. Places her three siblings — older brother, Tim; older sister, Lillie; and little sister, Mari — had talked about.
Laura told AnnCatherine she couldn't go to any of those schools because she didn't have the grades. AnnCatherine has Down syndrome, a congenital disorder caused by a chromosome defect that causes intellectual impairment and physical abnormalities.
Laura was crying, too.
"We have really, through the course of her life, encouraged her to do everything she can do and try things, but . you are not parenting well to tell your child they can do something that they're never going to do," she said. "It's one thing when they're 5 and you say, 'You can be a fireman' or 'Yeah, you can play for the Colts.' It's a different thing at this stage in life."
And then, through tears, AnnCatherine asked the one question that inspired her parents to spend the next two years hunting down every program available:
"Are you telling me there is no place in the country for me to go to college?"
Until that day in the car, AnnCatherine had a typical high school experience.
She was a cheerleader and played tennis. She went camp in the summers and had a tight group of friends that included her sister Mari. When she got upset at her older sister, Lillie, she'd dump all Lillie's belongings from their shared bedroom into the hallway.
She was even nominated Homecoming princess her freshman year.
The only unusual part is that AnnCatherine did all of this not only while overcoming the physical challenges of Down syndrome — such as lower energy, weaker muscles, learning difficulties and a generally smaller build — but the stereotypes that come with the diagnosis.
People expect her to be loving and kind all the time, Laura said, and make assumptions about her capabilities.
Spend some time with AnnCatherine and you'll find that while she can be loving and kind, she's also sassy and silly and occasionally grouchy. You'll find that she's very responsible, dedicated and hard working, especially when she finds something she loves — like cheerleading.
She's shy and sometimes difficult to understand when she speaks but excels socially. She can cook a great steak, although her specialty is biscuits and gravy. She loves working with children.
And, like many of her friends, she not only wanted to go to college after graduating from Zionsville High School, she expected it.
Getting AnnCatherine into college started with a spreadsheet. Her father, John, a human resources professional for Eli Lilly, made a list of 200 schools with programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities after scouring websites and scholarship lists.
They narrowed it down from there. AnnCatherine wanted to go for four years and live on campus, which took many day programs out of the running. She applied to five last fall including George Mason University's LIFE program in Fairfax, Va.
There are few programs like this, and therefore they are highly competitive, Laura said. The application process was intense. At one university, which she declined to name, Laura said they went through three interview rounds. There was behavioral and psychological testing involved.
At George Mason, the LIFE program receives from 60 to 70 applications each year, said director Heidi Graff. This year they accepted 16 students, only four from out of state.
The Heigls considered George Mason a "stretch." In February AnnCatherine was dropped off at 9 a.m. for her interview and picked up at 3:30 p.m. Laura waited nervously in a nearby Panera Bread.
"It's hard for a parent to send a child away. Period," Laura said. "This is at a whole different level. ... This wasn't our plan. This is her plan. And we feel like our job as parents is to support her plan, just like we did for her big brother and big sister."
Hard work pays off
Laura saw the email from George Mason first, with the word "acceptance" in the subject line. She's a Realtor and was in the middle of showing houses. Instead, she sat in her car, crying, while her client patiently waited with her.
It was a moment of relief. There is a place for AnnCatherine.
"As much as anything it's an affirmation of her hard work, and the hard work of our teachers, coaches, therapists and the community," Laura said.
She then called a family meeting for 5 p.m., when they would show AnnCatherine her acceptance email. It was weird, Mari said, because they never have family meetings. She was worried something was wrong.
Sitting on the couch surrounded by family — including her two older siblings away at university joining via FaceTime — AnnCatherine read the email. In the video, it's a little difficult to understand what she's saying. But physically, it's pretty darn clear.
A smile flashes across her face between sentences. She gives her hands a little clap. Her older sister Lillie is audibly crying.
"I'm going there," she says, pointing to the iPad before squeezing her eyes shut in a massive grin.
She's the first person from Indiana to be accepted to George Mason's LIFE program, which started in 2002. It now has 54 students and 100 support staff members, according to its website.
At the end of her four years, AnnCatherine will have a George Mason Certificate of Completion, with a concentration in a work specialty area, such as pet care, office clerical work, child development or digital technology, Graff said. The goal is "meaningful employment," she said, as well as promoting academics. Students complete internships.
AnnCatherine is hoping to study cooking or something that allows her to work with children. She'll also learn skills to live independently.
Graff said AnnCatherine stood out as someone who really wanted to be in the program and sign up for different activities. Someone who is able to socialize and has "an enthusiasm to want to try," she said, which is important to this sort of program.
The experience comes with a high out-of-state tuition cost, a little more than $13,000 per semester, plus more than $20,000 in residence and support fees. AnnCatherine qualified for a few scholarships, but there aren't many out there. Laura said for their family, the cost is ultimately worth it.
"That keeps her off of welfare, that keeps her off of state aid, and it makes her a happier more productive person as opposed to sitting on her mother's couch," Laura said.
Jobs are rare for people with disabilities. In 2016, only 17.9 percent of people with a disability were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
AnnCatherine already knew that. She was the one who kept repeating "I need options," for the past two years.
So how is she feeling now, only a few weeks before she moves into her student housing in Virginia and starts classes? After once again surpassing people's expectations?
"I'm feeling good."
Source: The Indianapolis Star
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com