There was a lot to cheer about recently as the Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School football team enjoyed a record-breaking championship season. Sharing in the excitement, and thrilled to be experiencing it together, were sisters Malen and Mara Grubaugh of Rumson.
Mara, a fifteen-year-old sophomore at RFH, is a member of the RFH Dance Team — while eighteen-year old Malen, who has Down syndrome and attends the Somerset County-based Midland School, is the team’s first-ever manager.
As Team Manager, Malen is in charge of keeping the girls’ spirits and energy up. She is also responsible for everything from taking attendance to making sure that all the dancers are wearing the correct hair bows and paw stickers. And it is up to Malen to give the “go ahead” confirming that the girls are ready before music begins playing for their half time performances.
Malen’s appointment was a dream come true for the Grubaugh family. The sisters share a love of dance and have taken lessons for years – Malen in a special needs class at Family Resource Associates in Shrewsbury, and Mara at a local dance academy.
“For years, both of my girls have been on the sidelines for one another’s performances,” said the girls’ mother Laurie Grubaugh. “They are one another’s biggest fans. And when Mara joined the RFH dance team as a freshman, Malen had a new sideline to watch her sister from.”
Malen enjoyed attending RFH football games and watching Dance Team practices last year. This year, as Mara began her sophomore year, she and Jen Costa — the RFH Dance Team Coach — had a conversation about Malen and how she could become involved.
“I knew nothing about this in advance, and when Coach Costa approached me with the idea it brought tears to my eyes,” said Grubaugh. “I just couldn’t believe that my girls would have a chance to do what they both love and do it together! This was the very first opportunity Malen had to be involved in an activity at her hometown school and with her sister. It was amazing.”
According to Grubaugh, the team embraced Malen – and as much as Malen has learned from the girls on the team, the girls have learned even more from her. This past October, Malen and the Dance Team members worked together to support Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
Malen provided bracelets to the cheerleaders and dancers to promote awareness, acceptance, and inclusion – and Coach Costa made blue and yellow ribbons for all of the girls to wear as well.
And for one of the senior girls, getting to know Malen influenced a potential career path.
“Katie Pierson was Mara’s Dance Team ‘big sister’ and became friends with Malen as well,” said Grubaugh. “Katie has now expressed an interest in becoming an occupational therapist and working with special needs clients. This was something she never realized she had a desire to do until she met Malen. Again, so much goodness triggered by a coach and a sister with big hearts, understanding, and acceptance.”
“After Malen’s first dance team practice, I knew that we had made the right decision by selecting her as Manager,” said Costa. “Even when we are freezing during a football game, Malen’s smile encourages the girls to give 110%. The team looks to Malen not only as a manager but as a teammate, friend, and sister. I see the girls looking out for her and wanting to know how her school day was, her favorite song … just simple teenage girl talk. As we begin our basketball and competition season, Malen will be present – she is a key part of the RFH Dance Team and when she is missing we are not complete.”
Grubaugh expressed appreciation for an experience that has enriched so many lives.
“It is truly amazing how much Coach Costa has done for both of my girls and for her team by just being kind,” said Grubaugh. “I am so very proud of Malen and Mara, the girls on the team, and Coach Costa. My hope is that there will be more opportunities like this for students with special needs in our community.”