Theodore High student Jakayla Penn is excited about making a trip to New York this month. But it’s not just any trip.
Penn is one of 500 young people with Down Syndrome around the country who were selected to have their pictures displayed on an electronic billboard in Times Square this month. The display on Sept. 15 comes in conjunction with the National Down Syndrome Society’s 24th annual New York City Buddy Walk.
Penn, who is wearing a prom dress in her photo, said she’s excited to see it in Times Square and to visit relatives in New York while she’s there. “I feel like a star,” she said.
Her teachers and classmates say she really is one.
“There is no one more deserving of being on a billboard in Times Square than Jakayla,” said Theodore JV cheerleading coach Sabrina McAnally. “I know she is so excited, it’s so well-deserved and I know everyone that sees her on that billboard is going to see her excitement and energy through that photo.”
“I’m happy for her,” added senior cheerleader Amyah Banin. “She adds a lot of spirit. She’s always fun to be around. She likes to dance all the time. That’s her favorite thing to do.”
Jakayla’s mother, Jackie Penn, says cheerleading is one of many extracurricular activities Jakayla is involved in – including drama, Mobile Police Explorers, dance team and ushering in church.
“A lot of times they think because they have disabilities, they can’t do everything,” Penn said of young people with Down Syndrome. “Jakayla does everything.”
Penn added that she’s thankful Jakayla’s teammates on the cheerleading squad have been so kind and helpful to her. “They are so amazing. They make sure she knows all the cheers and they help her,” Penn said. “She’s been cheering since she was 5. She loves cheering.”
McAnally says that with her spirit and enthusiasm, Jakayla has been an inspiration to her teachers, teammates and fellow students.
“In sports and in the classroom, we try to encourage students to work hard and go after their goals, go after their dreams. Limits are just a mindset,” McAnally said. “So seeing her reach her potential and go past what others may think she can be and to do what she does has been really encouraging to myself, our staff and the students around her. She is one of the biggest inspirations that I have ever known.
“We’re going to be cheering her on all the way down here and we can’t wait to hear about it when she gets back. We know she’s going to have a lot of stories to tell us.”