RUMSON – Sisters Malen and Mara Grubaugh enjoyed Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School’s (RFH) championship football season together this year on the sidelines: Mara as a member of the RFH dance team and Malen as the team’s first-ever manager.
Malen’s appointment as manager was unusual since she does not attend RFH. This year, as Mara, 15, began her sophomore year at RFH, she approached dance team coach Jen Costa about how Malen, 18 and a student at The Midland School, could become involved with the team. Both girls share a love of dance and have taken lessons for years – Malen, who has Down syndrome, 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.
“I knew nothing about this in advance, and when Coach Costa approached me with the idea (of Malen being manager) 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.”
As 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 all the dancers are wearing the correct hair bows and paw stickers. And it is up to Malen to give the “go ahead,” confirming the girls are ready before music begins playing for their halftime performances.
“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 percent. 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.”
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 team worked together to support Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Malen provided bracelets to the RFH cheerleaders and dancers to promote awareness, acceptance, and inclusion and Coach Costa made blue and yellow ribbons for all of the girls to wear.
And for one senior dance team member, 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.”
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.”
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