Mater Dei High School student Charlie McGee embrace’s the school’s tenets of “honor, glory and love” in every way possible.
Charlie, a senior, serves in student government as a campus ministry commissioner, where one of his roles is reading afternoon prayers to the entire school over the PA system.
He is an altar server at campus Masses, helps feed the homeless and participates in food drives with his peers.
As a four-year member of the Monarchs wrestling team, Charlie participates in one of the most physically and mentally demanding sport there is. Charlie also has a developmental disability known as Down Syndrome.
People with Down Syndrome “experience mild to moderate cognitive delays,” explains the National Down Syndrome Society, and the delay “is not indicative of the many strengths and talents that each individual possesses.”
Charlie’s condition is classified as mild, in part, because he has integrated with typically developing students in Catholic schools since kindergarten.
At Mater Dei, Charlie receives some specialized instruction designed for students with mild intellectual differences.
But Charlie spends most of his school days simply being one of Mater Dei’s 2,000-plus students. Charlie’s parents, Jerry and Alana McGee have been sure to mainstream Charlie as much as possible since.
“If you don’t provide those opportunities, then the outcomes are inherently going to be affected and different,” Jerry McGee said. “So, the greatest thing that Charlie can do is just be present and be typical within a bunch of other kids.”
But Charlie is more than simply present.
He is one of the most outgoing and most popular kids on campus.
When Mater Dei hired a new president recently, Charlie made it a point to go up and introduce himself.
“He was one of the first people that I met,” Mater Dei President Michael Brennan said. “We had a great conversation. He is a special kid.”
In the wrestling room, Monarch wrestling coach Luis Renteria said his 160-pound wrestler is almost like a second coach.
“I’ve been lucky enough to coach him for all four years,” Renteria said. “If we’ve got another school that comes in and wants to work out with us, he is the
first one to go introduce himself and go ‘Hi, I’m Charlie McGee.’”
During practice, Charlie performs the same drills and conditioning exercises, practices the same skills and sweats as hard as his teammates.
“We don’t treat him any different,” Renteria said. “He’s pretty knowledgeable. He has learned a lot.”
Said Charlie, “The practices are tough, but the friendships make it fun.”
Charlie chose to join the wrestling team because one of his two older brothers, Emmet, was a four-year wrestler at Mater Dei.
“My brother did it,” Charlie said. “He loves wrestling … and so I continued it as a freshman so that is what I love about wrestling.”
As a freshman, Charlie became fast friends with teammate Jake McLaughlin and the pair has remained close ever since.
“Charlie probably spends more time with Jake than any other student,” Mater Dei’s director of communications, Allison Bergeron said.
Jake and Charlie eat lunch together and hang out on weekends. During the summer, they go to the beach together.
“He always has a positive outlook on everything,” McLaughlin said.
Jake also drives Charlie home from school every day.
“Charlie takes over the radio,” McLaughlin said. “He loves listening to music. He plays whatever music he wants.”
The pair once shaved their heads together and were known around school as the “buzz bros.”
“Without question, the friendships he has are genuine and the interaction he has is much more typical than it is the exception,” Jerry McGee said.
Charlie’s self-advocacy skills and confidence to walk up to an adult and start a conversation is not typical of most high school kids, Bergeron said.
“That is innate in him, but it is also because he feels so loved and accepted here,” she said.
Charlie, like most Mater Dei seniors, is in the process of researching colleges. He has applied to Clemson University, which is known for its ClemsonLIFE (Learning is for Everyone) program, a nationally recognized, post-secondary program designed to provide young adults with intellectual disabilities with the skills needed to find employment and live independently. ClemsonLIFE students live in campus dorms, attend classes, eat in the dining halls and interact with the student population.
“When I started looking at it, I was very interested in it,” Charlie said. “They have a really good program.” Charlie loves animals and wants to major in zoology.
“I’ve been wanting to do it my whole life,” he said. I love working with animals.”
Charlie came to Mater Dei to learn, she said, but Charlie’s presence has been a blessing for Mater Dei as well.
“We are all growing and continue learning because he was welcomed into our community,” Bergeron said. “I think we will continue to grow. He will be missed.”