Starkville High School seniors Owen Hardin and Hannah Jian share a high five after a Dec. 11 fashion show at The Mill Conference Center in Starkville. Hardin was the guest of honor at the event Jian spearheaded that benefited the Central Mississippi Down Syndrome Society. Hardin, 19, is the son of Jimmy and Orly Hardin. Jian, 17, is the daughter of Guihong Bi. Photo by: Photo by Abbi Oswalt
Hannah Jian helps coordinate more than 30 participating models backstage for the style show at The Mill in Starkville Dec. 11.
Photo by: Photo by Abbi Oswalt
Harper Ford, a student at Armstrong Middle School, and Jason Roberson, who attends Starkville High School, were among almost three dozen models participating in the Dec. 11 benefit style show.
Photo by: Photos by Abbi Oswalt
December 22, 2018 9:59:19 PM
Life has been pretty cool lately for Owen Hardin. This past fall, the 19-year-old Starkville High School senior with Down syndrome was elected homecoming king by the student body. And on Dec. 11, he was the guest of honor at a fashion show fundraiser for the Central Mississippi Down Syndrome Society, an event created by fellow classmate Hannah Jian. The night was a testament to Jian's energy and organization, and a tribute to her classmate who is an integral part of the SHS Class of 2019.
Jian didn't have to think long about who to honor with the event.
"Owen is so loved by our school," said the teen who moved to Starkville about five years ago with her mother, Guihong Bi, a research professor in Mississippi State's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. "Having Down Syndrome is not an easy thing to deal with, but every day I see Owen at lunch or in the hallway, and he's always smiling or laughing. I think he's the perfect example of someone who doesn't let one thing in his life define who he is."
Hardin's mother, Orly Hardin, said, "I think it's remarkable that someone Hannah's age could be influenced by knowing Owen to the point where she actually acted on it and went through all the effort to put on a fashion show and get all the vendors to help her make the show a success."
Starkville High School National Honor Society Chair Dane Peagler echoed the thought. He helped coordinate student volunteers to help with the function. While finding people willing to help out a good cause isn't uncommon, he said, seeing a teenager create and carry out a large-scale project from start to finish is more rare.
"It was a big undertaking for Hannah and a great thing to see someone have that sort of drive," he said. "She had a specific vision."
Jian, 17, first got the idea for the event as she sat in the audience at an MSU Fashion Board style show in late October.
"While I was watching, I told my friend, 'Wouldn't it be really cool if we could put on our own version of a fashion show?' The more I thought about it, I realized there was nothing preventing us from doing it."
That head-on attitude isn't unusual for Jian. She is president of the Leo Club at her school. Leos are the youngest members of the Lions Clubs International. She's active in National Honor Society service projects, such as tutoring and recycling, has participated in scouting, instigated a donation drive for the local humane society and organized a school supply drive for Boys & Girls Club youth, to name a few ventures.
Her idea to develop a benefit fashion show went from spark to working plan quickly, as Jian and her friend Kayleigh Thomas put their heads together.
Paramount on the to-do list was to secure a location: The Mill. Models: about 35 took part. Runway outfits: Jian went to Starkville clothing vendors with her idea.
"I started phoning and emailing and went around downtown to local boutiques to ask if they would be interested in letting us borrow clothes," the senior said.
In the end, the endeavor involved multiple businesses (including Cobos, Deep South Pout, George Marys, Klara Haloho, LA Green, Libby Story and Reeds) and models from the MSU Fashion Board, Starkville High, Starkville Academy and Armstrong Middle School. A small army of volunteers from the Leo Club and National Honor Society pitched in to sell tickets, set up and take down. Jian also arranged for Miss Riverbend, Sydney Slocum, to make remarks. Slocum's platform in Miss Mississippi competition has focused on possibilities for those with disabilities.
In fewer than six weeks from idea to show time, Jian and company developed a viable community event that raised right at $1,000 for the nonprofit Down Syndrome Society through sales of $5 tickets, plus a raffle and donation box at the show.
For all the hours invested in preparation, event night was nerve-racking, Jian admitted -- especially as the 150 chairs set up for patrons began filling.
"I was so extremely stressed out because I felt like I had spread myself very, very thin," the senior laughed. "I was running back and forth, with a million things going through my mind, wanting to make sure everything was ready to go."
She needn't have worried so much.
"It was a very fun event," said Orly Hardin, who watched her son beam and wave to the crowd when he was introduced by Jian at the show. "He knew a lot of the models, and he was thrilled to be there to see them.
"I think what is so remarkable about this class is he has been with a certain group since kindergarten, and they have stayed together and taken good care of him. His kindergarten teacher charged them with taking care of Owen the entire time they've been in school together, and they have."
Jian's mother said, "Hannah has always mentioned that Owen is a great schoolmate. I'm very glad to see her grow up and be concerned for others. She is oriented to help other people and give back to the community."
Jian stressed that the fundraiser would not have been possible without the support of the Leo Club, National Honor Society, models, vendors, MSU Fashion Board and many others. She's proud of what was accomplished and knows that honing her time management and leadership skills through the endeavor will help her as she heads to college, where she plans to focus on business and marketing.
For now, Jian and Hardin are enjoying Christmas break. When the seniors return to Starkville High in January, their thoughts will turn toward graduation, something they both look forward to. For a few more months, however, the Class of 2019 will be together, with Hardin an important part of the circle.
"He's a real uniting force for all of us," Jian said. "So many students in our class maintain a friendship with Owen. The amount of care and love we have for him is something that connects us all."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.