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Homecoming crown goes to an energetic teen fighting a chronic disease

Senior Moorea Howson, this year's Laguna Beach High homecoming queen, stands with her mother, Kris, and her father, Robert.
(Handout / Coastline Pilot)

Moe Howson’s reaction during halftime of Laguna Beach High’s homecoming football game Oct. 23 said it all.

Howson, 16, a senior who was diagnosed with Williams syndrome two weeks after birth, went to her knees and kissed the turf at Guyer Field upon learning peers voted her homecoming queen.

Dressed in an aqua-blue dress, a grinning Howson got up and walked a few steps to meet Mason Pitz, who placed a crown atop her head. Homecoming king Penn Nielson then embraced Moe.

“All these kids love me and care about me,” Moe said last week while sitting beside her mother Kris, who played a video of the ceremony on her cellphone in the family’s Laguna Beach home. “They are so giving and kind. I felt honored and amazed. Amazed.”

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Family and peers said the honor is well-deserved for a girl who boasts an energetic, friendly personality while battling a genetic disease characterized by developmental delays, learning disabilities and cardiovascular disease.

“The student body is amazing,” said Kris, who graduated from Laguna Beach High in the 1980s. “In the 1970s and 80s, you would never have dreamed a special needs kid would be homecoming queen. They kept those sorts of things quiet. It’s a testament that the times have changed. Our school district has promoted and encouraged typical kids to treat special needs kids so well.”

Williams syndrome affects between 20,000 and 30,000 people in the U.S., and occurs equally in men and women. There is no cure.

People with the condition tend to be social, friendly and endearing, needing to connect with others. But they often don’t recognize nuanced social cues, making it difficult to form lasting relationships, according to the Williams Syndrome Assn. website. Distractibility is a common problem in mid-childhood, which can improve as the children age.

Moe takes her diagnosis in stride, spending time with her younger sister Jade at the beach, and attending a weekly Bible study group. She participates in gymnastics, lifts weights and likes to dance. Moe is short for Moorea, the Tahitian island where her father Robert proposed to Kris.

Kris said she and Robert decided they would not hide anything about Moe’s condition from her.

“We treat it like a food allergy, like it’s something you have,” Kris said.

Moe said she is not upset that she will not be able to drive and will likely not have her own biological children to avoid possibly passing the disease to them.

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“I don’t want to pass my condition on to them so they go through the same challenges,” Moe said.

Challenges, such as not being able to write, have strengthened Moe, Kris said, while instilling confidence that she can overcome obstacles.

When Moe didn’t make the school’s cheerleading team as a freshman, Activities Director Yvette Kelly arranged for her to be an honorary member rooting on the boys’ water polo team by herself.

Kris expected the team played a key part in rallying support among students to vote Moe as queen.

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Special education teacher Mindy Hawkins started working with Moe the summer before her freshman year. Hawkins has Moe in several classes including health, ceramics, vocational education and math.

“Over the past four years, I have seen Moorea grow into a very confident, dynamic young lady,” Hawkins wrote in an email. “She greets everyone we come across with enthusiasm and passion for life.Her favorite word is ‘inspire.’ She always leaves me smiling.”

Health is Moe’s favorite subject and she would like to work in the medical field, possibly in cardiology. Twice a year, Moe visits her cardiologist, who monitors heart activity and checks vital signs. People with Williams syndrome can have narrowed blood vessels and higher blood pressure readings than others.

For now, Moe looks forward to rooting on the water polo team as it eyes the CIF playoffs, and come winter, cheering the basketball team.

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