Preston’s Birthday Party

By: Megan J.M. Clodi

“Are you going to throw me a party?” is the exact question asked several times a week by Mt. Vernon Township High School (MVTHS) student-athlete, Preston Reich. He would ask his teacher this question to make sure she didn’t forget he was getting ready to embark on a new chapter of his life.

Preston has always attended MVTHS and participated in Special Olympics bowling, athletics (track and field), Unified Bass Fishing, and after doing basketball skills for a number of years, he played on the basketball team. When Preston completed his fourth year of high school, he shifted to another program provided by MVTHS called Readying Adults to Maximize Success, or the R.A.M.S. Program. It is designed to teach students how to live independently with a strong focus on vocational skills. While he has been part of the program, Preston has honed his vocational skills while working at locations on and off campus. Mrs. LeeAnn Schuette was his teacher and developed relationships with several local businesses for Preston and his classmates to generalize their skills into community settings. The DoubleTree by Hilton, Mt. Vernon Dream Homes, and others are some locations where Preston has worked on fine-tuning his skills. While giving a speech to the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce Executive Board about the R.A.M.S. Program, Preston revealed that his favorite part of working at the DoubleTree by Hilton was seeing General Manager, Mike Carbonaro every day … Mr. Carbonaro was in the audience for that speech!

This school year was bittersweet for Preston. This was his last year to attend MVTHS and his last year in the R.A.M.S. Program because he was turning 22 years old. When students receiving transitional programming turn 22 years old, they “age out” or exit the program. This can be daunting for some students or some families. Preston was ready! He works several days each week at Kingdom Seed Ministries, which is a non-profit organization that sells lunches three days a week to raise money for their various community ministries. All through the year, Preston knew what was coming around the corner in April 2020. He knew his time at MVTHS was coming to an end. Truthfully, he was the ONLY student at MVTHS who knew he would not be entering the hallowed halls for the rest of the school year. The abrupt end of in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic took everyone by surprise. The one aspect that Preston was not prepared for was how his 22nd birthday party would be impacted. Would he still have a party?

When students exit the R.A.M.S. Program midyear due to aging out, Mrs. Schuette really pulls out all the stops to make the exiting student feel how special they are and know how much they will be missed.  A HUGE 22nd birthday bash is held in the student’s honor. Preston participated in his classmate party last year. It was something he was looking forward to this entire year. March saw an Executive Order from Illinois Governor JB Pritzker for all Illinois residents to stay at home for at least 30 days. This meant Preston’s party, to be held on his birthday, April 17, could not be held, at least in the way it was originally intended.

Thankfully, Preston’s teacher is awfully incredible! She would never let a pandemic get in the way of Preston’s highly anticipated party. She just had to make sure he knew that Ram Nation would always love Preston and that he would always be part of the Ram Family!  Mrs. Schuette began contacting Preston’s family, teachers, staff members, and the whole community about Preston’s upcoming birthday and the brand-new plan to throw him a 22nd birthday PARADE! At 12:30 pm on Friday, April 17, about 50 vehicles met in a nearby vacant parking lot and at 12:45 pm police sirens were sounded as the vehicles formed a line and began driving toward Preston’s home. This timing was important because it was the time of day Preston was born 22 years before. Living a few blocks from a major road, Preston thought the sirens were for a funeral procession. As the siren sound became louder and louder, he and his family exited their home and were greeted with a long procession of cars, decorated with streamers and balloons, honking while passengers were cheering and holding signs, and many carefully dropped gifts and cards for Preston.

Speaking of cards, Preston received so many cards in the days surrounding his birthday!  He hardly ever receives mail, let alone so many cards! He even received a card from the state of Florida with Disney stickers. One letter came from Jackson Creel, a senior at MVTHS, who happens to share a birthday with Preston. He wrote that “all the cool people are born on April 17.” Jackson went on to write how much he missed seeing Preston in the hallways at school and telling him hello. Although they have never had classes together or hung out together after school, Jackson knows that birthdays are special, especially “their” birthday. Preston hung that special letter on his bedroom mirror. Guess who was hanging out the window of his mom’s SUV during Preston’s birthday parade … that’s right, Jackson!

Preston and his family were amazed at how the school and community showered him with love and birthday wishes.  He recorded a thank you video that his mom posted on Facebook. Preston may not have received a celebration like he was expecting, but Preston’s parade was the perfect party proxy!