Days after being crowned homecoming queen, Melissa Andrade remains in shock.
The California teen, confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, campaigned long and hard to win the title that, in the end, she secured by a landslide.
“It was so exciting," she told TODAY.com. "I still can’t believe it."
Classmates nominated the 19-year-old senior along with five other females to her school’s homecoming court, kicking Andrade’s competitive drive into gear.
She and friends hung up posters. She also participated in skits and silly games — including a doughnut-eating contest — set up to showcase the homecoming nominees. And Andrade reached out to kids she didn’t know to show off her personality to students who may not have known anything about her beyond her wheelchair.
“This was something she had to work hard for and it was nerve-wracking for her,” said Andrade’s mother, Michelle Ohanian. “She had to go in and earn that spot.”
And last Thursday night, classmates awarded her efforts by crowning her homecoming queen.
“There are cases out there of, 'Oh okay, disability kid, let’s feel sorry for her and vote her in,' but no, she worked her butt off. She definitely won fair and square,” Ohanian said.
Ontario High School principal Eduardo Zaldivar said he knows of some schools that reserve a spot on homecoming court for a special-needs student, but that wasn’t the case at his campus.
“She was nominated to the court legitimately, and she won it legitimately. It’s really indicative of the type of kids and staff we have at this school,” he said. “They’re an inclusive group that looks at people for who they are.”
Ohanian said her daughter has been ambitious “since she was knee-high.” Part of it stems from overcoming obvious physical challenges. Andrade didn’t like when other children stared at her, so she quickly learned how to turn those situations into educational opportunities.
“When we went to the mall or to doctor’s visits, kids would stare and she’d say, ‘Come over and touch my chair. It’s okay. We’re the same people, but I’m just a little different. I was born this way.’ She would just educate these kids.”
Andrade said she wants to continue educating young children after she finishes school. She wants to share her homecoming victory with kids like herself who need a boost of self-esteem.
“I really did it for other kids to show them it’s okay. I wanted to inspire them so I did it for them,” she said.
Andrade said she still has a hard time believing everything that she’s experienced within the last week.
“I never imagined it would happen,” she said. “Everybody keeps asking me about it. I loved it.
“I’m just very thankful that I have great people in my life who can support me. Without them, I couldn’t be where I am today so I’m just very blessed and thankful.”