Miriam Saterbak (left) and Blakeley Kress (right). Photo by Joe Center
The sun is setting over Darrell Tully Stadium as Spring Branch ISD’s Memorial Mustangs host the Aldine Nimitz Cougars. On the Memorial side, red and black pepper the sidelines and stands — a microcosm of unity and support like that of the district itself, where not only can students feel they belong, but they are encouraged to carve out that seat at the table for themselves.
On this night, two students exemplify that standard perfectly.
In the bleachers, sophomore Miriam Saterbak, 15, claps her cymbals in time with her fellow percussionists in the Mustangs Marching Band. On the field, junior Blakeley Kress, 17, horses around with the players while attending to their needs as football manager. Both have Down syndrome. They’ve known one another since they were small and have been a couple for about a year.
“I’m proud of getting a 1 at UIL,” Miriam says of the band’s achievement earlier in October at the Berry Center in Cypress. The shy smile of the girl who played piano a bit before taking up her favorite instrument, guitar, is infectious.
Miriam has long enjoyed being part of a team: She performed with the Memorial Middle School Band as a student, and enjoys gymnastics and competing in swimming for Special Olympics.
|Miriam Saterbak (fourth from left) with her fellow Mustangs Marching Band members. Photo by Joe Center|
Asked what he’s most proud of in his current role, he lights up and says simply: “Helping.”
|MHS Football Manager Blakeley Kress enters the field with his teammates. Photo by Joe Center|
“He is a part of the team, and the coaches are very good about incorporating him into all of the drills and exercises that we do,” says senior Jake Reistroffer, an offensive tackle who has known Blakeley a little more than a year. “…He always has a very big smile on his face and is ready to laugh and make me laugh. He has his own little inside jokes with everyone on the team that he cracks out from time to time.”
Jake’s father, Will Reistroffer, echoes his son: “[Blakeley is] just as important to the identity of the team as any player, coach or trainer. He enjoys genuine friendships with many of the boys on the team and [is] treated as an equal by all. He is extremely independent and has a sense as to when it is appropriate to joke around and be silly, but he also understands when to be focused and serious.
“He is part of the locker room, practice, bus rides, pre-game preparation and warm-up, halftime and post-game celebration and sadness. Each and every one of those boys and coaches [is] lucky to know Blakeley and to receive his gift of friendship without pretense and without conditions.”
Reistroffer knows well the sense of character Blakeley exhibits. He and Jake’s mother, Marci, lost a younger son with Down syndrome, Simon, to leukemia five years ago (the incidence of the disease is 10- to 20-fold higher in those with Down syndrome, studies show).
“Down syndrome people give and accept love unconditionally, without pretense,” Reistroffer says. “From Simon we learned that life is fragile and to treasure our relationships and friendships.”
Among other things, Miriam and Blakeley play basketball together for fun. Their easy relationship is a joy to watch, friends and family say.
“She and Blakeley together radiate laughter and joy, which is something that is admirable and awesome to be around,” Colton says.
Jake adds, “They are very sweet to one another, and it always makes me happy to see them together.”
These students are “very aware of who they are,” says Blakeley’s mother, Ashley Kress. To borrow a Buddhist term, she says many youths with Down syndrome “have radical self-acceptance.”
Perhaps that helps explain how they fit in easily not only with the band and team, but with each other. Miriam and Blakeley attended their second homecoming dance together a few days later on Nov. 7.
Of Miriam, Blakeley says, “She’s awesome. We talk a lot.”
Blakeley plans to study science in college, where he says he still hopes to work with the football team.