NEW PALESTINE – When Dave and Lisa Smith found out that their youngest daughter, Moriah, was born with Down syndrome in August of 2005, one of the first things Dave did was go to the hospital chapel and pray.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” Dave said.

In the presence of a higher power, Dave said he instantly felt comforted and was filled with the notion everything with their new baby girl was going to turn out alright.

On Friday night, Dave and Lisa, along with their oldest daughter, Mary Margaret, will watch Moriah pick up her high school diploma from New Palestine High School (NPHS) during the 7 p.m. graduation ceremony.

Not only will Moriah graduate on time with her Class of 2024, like many of her fellow classmates, Moriah is ready for the next step of life and is heading to college in late August.

“Yes, I’m ready,” Moriah said when asked if she’s excited about getting the chance to continue her education.

New Palestine High School senior Moriah Smith will graduate this week and will attend North Kentucky University in the fall. Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

Moriah has been accepted to attend North Kentucky University where, just like any college freshman, she’ll take a few elective classes as she eases her way into the next chapter of her life.

Moriah has already accomplishment plenty, her parents say, considering the challenges she’s already faced living with Down syndrome. Plus, Moriah nearly died in the first week of her life while gaining strength in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Moriah’s family notes their youngest daughter is an “overachiever” who likes to dream big and never counts herself out of any normal teenage opportunity, including being a college student.

“Moriah has been the driver for this, going to college,” Dave said. “We had never planned for her to do this, but here we are.”

Thanks to a program called Think College, the family found the right college for Moriah. Think College is dedicated to developing, expanding and improving research and practice in inclusive higher education for students with intellectual disability.

“They list all the universities and colleges across the country that have programs designed for people with differing abilities,” Lisa said.

The family picked NKU because it’s close by, offers the help Moriah needs, and is Lisa’s alma mater.

Moriah will work through a fully inclusive NKU program called Supported Higher Education Project (SHEP) while in college and plans to get involved with extra-circular activities like cheerleading.

“We really like the campus and feel like this is going to work out well for Moriah,” Lisa said.

Thanks to her “can-do” attitude, Moriah has big plans to earn an assistant teaching degree in three years and then land an assistant teaching job at an elementary school.

While Moriah could have chosen to continue to live at home and attend specialized classes at NPHS as part of the Community Adulthood Readiness Experience (CARE) program designed for students 18- to 22-years-old with her favorite teacher, Cara Westerman, Moriah and her family felt she was ready for a bigger challenge.

Moriah Smith and her favorite teacher at New Palestine High School, Cara Westerman. Submitted photo

The family says they realized early on in Moriah’s life, when she was in grade school, she was a person who thrived at overcoming odds, and they know she’ll be able to handle college life.

“She had many challenges when she was younger,” her mother said. “She was in a smaller elementary school where they didn’t have many kids with differing abilities, and so there were times for her where she didn’t understand maybe what was going on, but she was always so resilient and rose above whatever was happening around her.”

Blessed with a kind smile and a sharp sense of humor, there really isn’t anything Moriah can’t do, her family says. She’s even been studying the Indiana driver’s manual with plans to get her driver’s license.

“I was a risky child,” Moriah said with a mischievous laugh noting she can’t wait to drive.

She’s also been a good student. In addition to being a Cadet Teacher at New Palestine Elementary since 2023, Moriah earned a certificate from the district’s “Grow Your Own” program, where students are encouraged to become teachers. She celebrated with classmates a couple of weeks ago during a special signing event for the program and noted teaching is the career she wants.

Moriah Smith, center, and parents Lisa and Dave Smith, right, after she signed her certificate from the NPHS “Grow Your Own” Program where Moriah made the decision to go into the field of education and earn a college assistant teaching certificate. Submitted photo

“I just love kids so much and to help them learn something new, that’s what I want to do,” Moriah said.

In addition to the Cadet Teaching, Moriah was also a football cheerleader all four years of high school, was on the swim team for three years, took part in unified track and field for three years, was in school’s concert choir for four years and was a part of New Pal Pals for two years.

Moriah is also part of the state’s Special Olympics Swim Team, something she’s done since 2018.

“She’s a social butterfly,” Lisa said. “She’s also very independent.”

Which is why the family feels good about Moriah heading off to college on her own where she’ll live in a college dorm and walk herself to classes every day. The family admits they are a little apprehensive about Moriah being for the most part on her own, but they say it’s nice knowing she’ll only be a hour and a half away. Plus, Moriah has relatives 15 minutes outside of the NKU campus should she need a family member in a hurry.

“She put in her college profile that she has Down syndrome and she rocks her extra chromosome because she wanted any roommates to know who she is,” Lisa said.

Both of Moriah’s parents have backgrounds in education so, in many ways, Moriah will be following in her parents’ footsteps. However, anyone who spends time with Moriah knows she’s her own person.

“She’s defied a lot of standards for someone with Down syndrome and we couldn’t be prouder,” Lisa said.

Moriah said she’s really looking forward to taking human development and psychology classes along with modern dance this fall at NKU. However, when asked what’s she’s looking forward to the most about college life, Moriah smiled and said, “the food-court,” making both her parents burst out laughing, something Moriah loves to do.

“I would not change Moriah for the world,” her mother said, “But, I would change the world for Moriah.”

Looks like Moriah might be able to handle that one on her own.