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SOCIETY Battle of the Big Three

They may seem genteel, but SMU’s elite sororities are ruthless in their pursuit of upper-crust girls. How the sorority culture has turned competition into outright warfare.
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The Pig Run is about to begin. It’s Saturday afternoon and a crowd of young women-all dressed in jeans and white turtlenecks-has been corralled into a Student Center ballroom on the SMU campus. The rows and rows of folding chairs are like makeshift mini-pedestals for 400 freshly powdered, punch-drunk girls who have survived a week of sorority Rush parties and who now wail impatiently for the final announcements to be made. Some of the “Rush babies”-girls who were heavily recruited-have ever-so-slightly rebelled against the uniformity of the occasion, they’re so sure of their standing. Theta wannabes wear black jeans instead of traditional blue:Tri-Delt hopefuls are preened with strings of pearls.

They’ve been up all night, too nervous to sleep. A few have prematurely caved under the pressure they’ve put upon themselves, and mascara-colored tears streak their cheeks and slain the bleached sleeves that sop them up. Most of the girls, though, are dry-eyed and fidgety. They strain their necks, trying to spot friends sitting in front of them, behind them, across the aisles from them. Their pretty-colored heads bob and weave as if they’re in rhythm with all the chink-chinking of David Yunnan jewelry that is the closest sound to music at this gathering.

One of the girls-we’ll call her “Ashley” since she wouldn’t let her real name be used-is a petite 18-ycar-old with flawless skin and brown hair that’s twisted up the hack of her head and clipped at the top. with a few pieces falling back down haphazardly. She, like the other participants, ignores the yappy administrator who is planted at the podium and talking and talking about what a great Rush week just sped by. Ashley would give anything if the lady would just get on with it, cut to the countdown, start the race already.

Each of the girls sits on top of a sealed envelope with her name handwritten across it. In about 30 seconds, the yappy woman will finish the pre-Pig Run speech and begin counting to three. Then all 400 girls will bolt from their chairs and tear open “the bid” that tells them which house deems them worthy. For the past five days, the girls have done nothing but visit houses, and the houses have done nothing but host parties. If the girls like the houses, they wait to be invited back again and again; if they weren’t so impressed, they “cut” the house. At the same time, houses are “cutting” girls they don’t consider “real draws”-worthy pledges. Such is the weeding out process that leaves many girls limping back to the dorms devastated and wondering why they ever wanted to go through such a humiliating ordeal.

On the final night of the week-“pref night”-the girls and the houses make their final decisions in a process that may last into the dawn hours. The girls rank a final two houses as their first and second choices, or they commit “suicide”-marking on the Rush ballot that they’ll only accept a bid from their first choice. The houses, in turn, rank the girls they want. Bid day is the day after pref night, when the results have been tabulated and written on tiny white cards and stuffed into tiny white envelopes.

As soon as the girls are allowed to open their bids, they’ll break down. Amid sobs and barnyard-like squeals-as the legend goes-they’ll stampede out of the building and sprint en masse to Sorority Row, trying their best to avoid the throngs of frat boys who have gathered to watch the race moving along University and Daniel streets. When the girls reach their adoptive houses they’ll stop to receive the proper insignia-color-coded jerseys that distinguish them and their new sisters from the rest. Then suddenly all will be right in the world.

As Ashley waits impatiently for that moment of all moments, an impish smile stretches across her mouth. She just happened to sit on her envelope in such a way that most of it is jutting out from beneath her leg. She presses on the envelope, trying to read what’s written on the card inside. She can see the words “…has extended an invitation to…” and accidentally lets a slight scream escape before she bites a finger to hush herself. But which sorority wants her? She can’t quite read that part. Getting into SMU was a cinch. Getting into the “right” sorority at SMU, that is the tough part.

At SMU there are the girls that make the houses and then there are the houses that make the girls, namely Kappa Kappa Gamma. Kappa Alpha Theta and Pi Beta Phi-for decades the most exclusive, most competitive houses on campus. These triplets are notorious for heated clashes with each other when it comes to “getting on”-creatively encouraging-the “right” kind of girls to join their houses and therefore maintaining their supreme status. The Pi Phis swear the Kappas shut off their air conditioning during Rush parties a few years ago. The Kappas are almost positive that the Pi Phis have been spreading rumors that they aren’t making quota and are getting scolded by national headquarters. The Thetas call the Kappas and the Pi Phis queens of “dirty Rushing”-disobeying Rush rules on how to recruit coveted freshman girls; the Kappas and the Pi Phis say good looks are the only prerequisite to becoming a Theta. The list of pot shots goes on and on. And it’s not just the students who are playing rough. Local alumni are willing participants in this game. They did make a pledge of allegiance for life, after all, and do their part to rally the younger troops. “The alums like to brew the competition on fear,” says a young Pi Phi alum. “One year we had these local 40-year-old women screaming at us: ’Come on, let’s get those Kappa bitches!’”

Regardless of their reputation as cutthroat-or maybe because of it-the “Big Three” have long been considered the best houses on campus and the most difficult to get into. Ashley thinks if she doesn’t get into one of them, her social life will be stunted during college and, consequently, life forever after. Being in the Big Three is the fastest way to be somebody at SMU, to pass “Go” in that popular campus game called Searching for Status. And it’s a practice run m selling herself to the organizational female elite. If she plans to stay around Dallas after she graduates, which she thinks she most certainly does, a network of “sisters” can usher her into Junior League, Crystal Charity Ball and Dallas Woman’s Club. Ever since she was a junior at Highland Park High School, local women have promoted their respective houses to her whenever and wherever they saw her. bombarding her with their reasons why she should become one of them. One afternoon, when Ashley was returning a cooking pan to a neighbor’s house, the woman who answered the door handed her a note that read: “The Thetas are watching you.” Ashley had been told to look for such not-so-subtle signs of reconnaissance from an olden extravagant local Pi Phi alum: If this woman gave her Waterford crystal for her high school graduation, she was practically guaranteed a spot in that house. When she didn ’t get any, her mother called it “the handwriting on the wall” as far as pledging Pi Phi. For Ashley, becoming a member of the right sorority at SMU took years of research and preparation, and it was never something she took lightly. So as she stares at the envelope trapped underneath her leg, her heart skips a beat. She will just die if she isn’t allowed to open it soon, to find out if all that time and effort has paid off.



THE SCHOOL

OTHER THAN THE ACROPOLIS, IT’S HARD TO FIND SOMETHING more Greek than Southern Methodist University. Forty-seven percent of eligible females belong to 12 national sororities on this campus. That’s the highest percentage of any school in Texas and one of the 10 highest in the country. According to Michael Deen, SMU’s coordinator of Greek affairs, the percentage was even higher in the early ’80s-closer to 50 or 55 percent. But then came the big oil bust and as prices fell, SMU’s Greek population decreased slightly. It rebounded soon after that, and throughout the ’90s it’s held steady at around 45 percent while the rest of the country’s campuses, says Deen. have experienced a decline in Greek population. Of SMU’s comparable southern competitors, only Vanderbilt is slightly more Greek, with 50 percent of its females currently belonging to 12 national sororities. Duke has 42 percent in 13 national sororities: TCU 34 percent in 11, and Emory 33 percent in 10. Two of the most academically difficult schools in Texas, however-Rice and Trinity-don”t allow national sororities on their campuses. Elite colleges in the east and in the midwest such as Swarthmore, Harvard. Princeton and Grinnell don’t want them around either. In 1989, faculty at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania voted (unsuccessfully) to abolish social Greek groups from campus, stating that they promoted “racism, sexism, elitism and anli-intellec-tualism”-everything a university sitting at the helm of progress tries its damnedest to avoid.

At SMU, the 12 national sororities are segregated by race. N ine of the sororities at SMU are Panhellenic houses. (Panhellenic is one of the national governing bodies of sororities.) The other three SMU sororities are Pan-Hellenic, another national governing body. Both organizations officially have open admission policies, but in the 1996-1997 Greek Guide published by SMU, a longstanding distinction is made clear:

“The majority of predominantly white sororities and fraternities operate separately under National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) and Interfra-ternity Council (IFC) respectively. On the other hand, predominantly black sororities and fraternities operate under one umbrella organization. National Pan-Hellenic Council…. Because historically black sororities and fraternities do not participate in mainstream rush procedures, the majority of SMU’s population doesn’t recognize black greeks as part of the traditional greek system.”

Tradition, evidently, refers only to the Panhellenic Greek system at SMU. With the school’s student population being only 6 percent African-American, Pan-Hellenic is not such a ubiquitous system on campus as Panhellenic.

“They haven’t kept pace with the times,” says Stan Levy, retired vice chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne in Time. “The attitudes of the Greeks are of an era that has long passed.”

So why, then, does SMU consistently stay one of the most sorority-saturated campuses in America?

“Because it’s tradition,” says one Alpha Chi Omega with a shocked look on her face like she’s just been asked if she were bom a boy or a girl. (The answer is so obvious.) “You just don’t break tradition.” Especially if it’s a southern tradition.

It’s also a matter of money. And around here, of course, money and tradition are hardly distinguishable. Joining a Panhellenic sorority at SMU costs between SI ,500 and $ 1,800 the first pledge semester. Figure in three more years of dues and it’s around $6,000. Then there’s the added extras that can push the figure to five digits: formal attire, party favors, t-shirts, diamond-studded badges. SMU simply attracts more students who can afford such an expensive extracurricular pursuit. Plus, students know how it is at SMU: “You are either Greek or geek,” says a Theta.

With Greek life being the most popular student activity and Panhellenic sororities being the most visible factions by far, they naturally have become the most divided. For decades, undergrads at SMU have broken it down like this: You’ve got the Kappas, the Thetas and the Pi Phis occupying the upper echelon of Sororityville. Then you’ve got the Chi Omegas (the Chi-O’s) and the Delta Delta Deltas (the Tri-Delts) and maybe the Delta Gammas (the DG’s); then there’s “everybody else”-the Gamma Phi Betas (the Gamma Phis), the Alpha Chi Omegas (the Alpha Chi’s) and the Alpha Delta Pi’s (the ADPi’s). “We call them the garbage houses,” says one Theta when describing the latter three. “They’ll take anyone. Somebody’s got to.”

For women’s organizations that were founded on the same warm-and-fuzzy principles-to honor the bonds of female friendship, to nurture the surrounding community, to achieve academic excellence-the extreme separatism and snobbery that has grown among them is debasing and hard to believe. The competition is the most ruthless among the top three, who demand an incredible amount of allegiance from their pledges. Word is that the Kappas and the Thetas are the two biggest rivals, and recently the Pi Phis have been taking advantage of this and rushing harder than they have in years. “We’ve had the best Rush for five years in a row,” claims one Pi Phi alum. “In the spring of ’93, the Pi Phis got all the girls that Kappas thought they had. The senior Kappas took one look at their pledge class on bid day and went inside and slammed the door of the house. They were just so pissed.”

When it comes to recruiting, the Big Three don’t like to consider someone if she’s even thought about joining another house that’s not on their status level. A Pi Phi alum admits inter-sorority mixing was a big turn off. “I saw this girl one first semester,” she says. “She was so pretty and her GPA was awesome-I looked in her file. No one had been rushing her and on pref night she told me, ’I really like this house, da, da, da.’ I asked her where she was going next. You’re not supposed to do that but I did. And she said Gamma Phi! If I had kept that between the two of us, she would have been OK. But later that night I told everyone [in the house] what she told me and they all just cracked up. So she was cut…on that basis alone. Later [after Rush], all the girls will talk about what houses they visited [on pref night]. We couldn’t have her saying she went to Gamma Phi.”

SMU has a deferred Rush that takes place in January, which means the sorority members and the “rushees” alike take the fall semester to scout out who’s who and who belongs where. But even though Rush is officially held in the spring, the diehard rushees get their paperwork in as soon as they arrive on campus in the fall and have probably spent their last high school summer arranging for hundreds of personal recommendations and dozens of senior photographs to be sent to the SMU houses. These photos, incidentally, are made into slides for the active sorority members to look at, scrutinize, memorize and vote on. Freshman girls know that September is not too early to start their contacting, to enter their seeing-and-being-seen phase. Last summer, a mother telephoned the housing office as soon as she learned where her freshman daughter had been placed. She told the housing director that her daughter had to be moved. “How is she going to get into the sorority she’s supposed to if she lives in that dorm?” the mother asked. That dorm-she had heard-was not the right place to be come the hallowed week of Rush. The housing director tried to calm her and explain that SMU does not honor such requests and that she had just heard a rumor. Still, Mom was not pacified.

On the other side of the courtship, the fall semester is the prime time for the houses to show each other up and outdo one another in the race to get the best girls’ attention a! events like Homecoming, Parent’s Weekend and football games. The active sorority members are virtual walking billboards the entire first semester, wearing their house letters every day until Christmas break. “And it’s not like one house will not do it [wear the letters] because then they’ll fall behind.” says advisor Deen, “…and they can’t work together because they just don’t trust each other.”

They certainly don’t trust anyone outside their “system” either. So secretive is this clan and so hyper-sensitive are its members that no one would talk without assurance of anonymity, “You’re going to have real trouble writing this article,” warns one active Kappa alum. “I don’t know how you think you’re going to get any information. You’re certainly not going to get anything from me,” she says, followed by a quick click and the resounding din of dial tone. Ashley’s mother grants an interview at a very bustling restaurant but whispers and abruptly shushes the conversation every time an impeccably dressed woman her age brushes by the table. It isn’t paranoia, When she gets home a few hours later, she finds six messages on her answering machine from several local Kappa alums-grown women Kappa alums-who have already heard she had talked, “Do you know what you’ve done?” they scold. “Your daughter will be ruined.”



THE GIRLS

FEW WITHIN THIS INSULAR WORLD WOULD CHALLENGE THE assumption that the Kappas and the Pi Phis and the Thetas have been considered the best sororities at SMU for generations. But when you ask those familiar with this seemingly impenetrable subculture why the Big Three are considered the Big Three, their foreheads crinkle and they squirm in their seats. What elevates these houses above the others is difficult to say-or admit, depending on how you look at it. It’s not stellar academic achievement that’s bolstered their rankings. Those athletic. Birkenstock-wearing, no-make-up-in-the-morning Chi-O’s from the North have had the highest GPA average of any house for the past five semesters. They’re followed closely by the over-achieving Tri-Delts, known for their gung-ho repertoire of campus leadership activities, but who still take the “leftovers”-girls who don’t make it into the Big Three-and are branded “vanilla girls.” those who lack defining features. DCs-those easy-loving, laid-back, hard-core partiers-know they usually have the lowest grades and frankly don’t care.

It’s not membership numbers, either. As of January 1997, the high-energy Tri-Delts had the largest house with 103 members. And it’s not philanthropic service that has earned the Big Three their reputation. Although SMU declined to release official numbers on each house’s contributions, a quick perusal through past yearbooks proves that all the houses volunteer often and raise thousands of dollars for charity.

What makes the Kappas and the Thetas and the Pi Phis the elite houses is the fact that they-more than all the others-really, really want to be considered the reigning suprêmes. They take themselves the most seriously; they try the hardest to maintain their established image. And what exactly is this image? What the Big Three embody at SMU, the Park Cities represent in Dallas-those fortunate upper-crusters with the most money, the most prestige and the most BMWs. Odd how a nationally ranked academic institution like Southern Methodist University can’t stay off limits to this kind of local society structuring instead of being a microcosm of it. But these houses don’t mind. They are the local houses. If a girl grew up in the Park Cities and she wants to pledge a house at SMU, she’s most likely “going” Pi Phi, Kappa or Theta. “I can tell you this,” says Ashley’s mother, “The Pi Phis are the most locally controlled house and their Rush last year was a real blood bath. The local Pi Phi alums literally lined up their daughters and wanted them to get in. It was like they told them, ’You’ll pledge Pi Phi or you’ll be killed in the morning.’ I asked myself, ’Why do these women want to sell their first born for a spot?” I just don’t get it.”

If a girl is selected to join one of the Big Three, there’s a good chance that she meets certain criteria. She is most likely among the richest of the rich at SMU, and probably started her networking early at Camp Mystic or Waldemar, or at least spent a summer at Longhorn or traveling Europe. Also, she probably belongs to a bloodline. That is to say, has a legacy and is not considered a “random.” For example, the girl’s aunt or mother or older sister pledged the house she wants when she was in college, no matter where that was. But this legacy should be willing to call and call and call the house at SMU-every day would be helpful-to promote her as a promising pledge. It’s extremely difficult to find out how many girls in each house have legacies-although all of the houses give priority to the girls who do. One of the questions on a Rush application asks if the girl has a legacy; if she does, she’ll get “points” for it later in the selection process. Ashley is not a Big Three legacy and her mother says it was nearly “the kiss of death.”

“I would never let a child do that again [go through Rush without a legacy],” she says. “It can get very mean when adults are involved in the process and end up hurting a child.”

And Big Three members usually have spotless reputations, even during their budding teenage years-or at least reputations that appear spotless. Even if a girl is the most adorable creature ever to leave Hockaday, if she was the life of a senior post-Prom party and an older alum got word of a “scandal,” she could call another alum, who could call another alum, who could call another alum at the SMU house and say, quite plainly that “Sally Mae, bless her heart, is not as wholesome as she looks on paper, just thought you should know. Goodbye and you’re welcome.” The (un)clean slate factor can be one of the strictest criteria. “That’s a great way to rub out a girl during Rush,” says Ashley’s mother. “I could really see how one wrong move could really obliterate her.”

Traditionally considered the most attractive the campus has to offer, the girls in these three houses make a habit of dressing to the Neiman-Marcus nines on an average class-ridden Wednesday. When asked how important physical appearance is during the selection process, one Pi Phi alum admits: “Appearance is important. When you’re making a judgment that fast it has to be. But every house has those girls that are just embarrassing.’’’ Of course each of these three houses has its own stereotypical style, and the girls in them have a subconscious way of looking more and more alike as they progress toward senior year. The Kappas and Pi Phis are generally referred to as “cute,” while the Thetas gamer more flattering adjectives like “hot” or “chic.” Frat boys, the self-proclaimed experts on this topic, are nearly unanimous in agreeing on the colloquial distinction. “If you asked 10 guys from a mix of fraternities which girls they’d rather hang out with, eight or nine would say Theta,” says a Phi Delt alum who graduated in 1993. “They’re hot, wild, tan, blond girls.” One Theta alum, who graduated in ’95, says she conformed to her house’s look willingly while she was there, growing her hair shoulder-length and dying it bright blond. Today, she sports a more natural dark red bob, and as she chats over coffee, admits people have trouble recognizing her in past photos-she has the same problem.

Of course, there has to be hair color balance, and the Kappas monopolize brunette beauty. Traditionally they have a bouncy-haired. Miss America, see-our-pearly-whites look. And they pride themselves on personifying class. Of the three. Kappas would be least likely to take a girl who isn’t comely. Thetas, on the other hand, have a more trendy, sexy, we-prefer-to-be-seen-in-Calvin Klein-or-Contempo image: and the Pi Phis fall somewhere in the middle-they might shop at Harolds, but will spin over to Rampage when they’re feeling funky. Pi Phis say they used to be more concerned with looks and money, but now they’re willing to accept a girl for her witty humor or charismatic spirit. The ’’entertainment criteria”-as opposed to the more established physical appearance criteria-probably has something to do with the Pi Phi’s reputation for being big partiers and the worst hazers. Pi Phis are infamous for the rumored breast size contest they put their pledges through. “We never really do it but we make the freshman think we do and we never tell anyone that we don’t,” says one Pi Phi, who admits that a few of her sisters once put pledges in the trunk of a car and drove them around Dallas.

Pi Phis and Thetas don’t seem to mind if everyone knows they party-unlike the Kappas, who are labeled “closet-partiers.” Kappas strive to maintain a conservative, good-girl reputation, which infuriates their opponents. “They think they’re better than everybody else,” snaps one Pi Phi. “They’re so brainwashed.”

Kappas tout the alcohol-free “Kappa Krush” party they throw at their house, and they do seem more reserved than Thetas and Pi Phis. Ashley says she liked the Kappa house best because most of the girls matched her moral character. “I’m sure some of the girls in the house have sex,” she says, “but I’m not sure.”

Even in the ’70s, the Kappas worked hard to preserve an aloof, pristine image. “They were snobbier, they were not as accessible, and they always had to be somewhere at a certain time,” says a former SMU fraternity guy, a Phi Delt who graduated in 1978. Kappas especially like to have the monied girls from the most prestigious families. They’re known to research what cars girls drive, who their fathers are, where they came from and which status level they were bom into. In the late 70s, Kappas were hot after the daughter of a former governor of Texas, even though she had a wilder reputation than girls they usually recruited. “She was always being threatened,” recalls the ’78 Phi Dell. “If her father wasn’t who he was, she probably would have been kicked out.”

On a geographical level, the Pi Phis of late and the Kappas for years have had a penchant for Park Cities girls. Intensely Greek UT-Austin is rumored to value those same PC girls. “You could send a Collie puppy from Highland Park and some house would take her,” says Ashley’s mother. “Yet they wouldn’t take the best girl from Paris, Texas.” The Kappas have long been labeled the most southern house and have recently heavily recruited from Arkansas. (“They wear gingham [during Rush skits] and have hay in their house for God’s sake,” says one non-Greek SMU student.) Those bubbly blond Thetas, however, are more likely to be East or West Coast girls. “But we are starting to recruit more southern girls-and brunettes,” says one Theta alum.

Image, as they say, is everything. And for the Big Three, consistently getting the girls who literally match that image is how to protect their rock-solid status. To get the girls they want, none is above bending the rules a bit. If they have to offer a girl a jersey in a secret room of the house during Rush parties, they will. If they have to take her out to dinner or send her flowers, they will. If they have to assign three active members to “get on” a girl at a party and talk to her all night about the house, they will. Whatever it takes to stay the Big Three. “Pro Rushees”-girls who tell each house it’s their first choice-play it sneaky, too. They figure their chances are better if they’re fought over instead of excluded. The competition is steep because not just anybody can be one of them.

The Big Three are the most difficult houses to get into; their prerequisites are the most demanding. That’s the way it’s been for generations and, if tradition holds, that’s the way it will be for generations to come. If an aspirant girl doesn’t make it into one of the Big Three, she’ll be heartbroken, and that’s more power than most admissions counselors hold. The Big Three know they are the Big Three and they make sure that anyone who cares enough to keep her mind it doesn’t warrant the excitement that the Kappa house does. The Pi Phis cut her early in the Rush week-she suspects that a friend’s mother, a Pi Phi alum, spread an unfair word about her. Not to worry, that house was her third choice anyway. Her mother didn’t exactly feel disappointed either. “I’ve never had any good Pi Phi friends.” she says.Rush is a rough experience-especially since she doesn’t have a Big Three legacy-but Ashley knows that the outcome will be worth any painful hurdles along the way. At the end of each night of parties, it was difficult for her to face friends who had not been so sought-after. One night she calls her mother, exhausted, and tells her that “coming back to the dorms was like coming back from Vietnam-dead bodies everywhere.”If Ashley gets the house she wants, she figures she’ll have an instant support group. She’ll be stronger than if she were standing alone and independent on this campus; she’ll make friends as well as a name for herself quickly. For the most part. Ashley is lucky. Her Rush is near-perfect. Active members of the sororities constantly talk to her at parties and make sure that she meets the promi-lient leaders of the houses. Over the week, she cuts more hous-es than houses cut her, which is really all a girl can hope foi And now it’s the day of the hid-a day that holds more emotion and drama than any other on the campus calendar. During Rush “96, an ambulance was summoned to thees than houses cut her, which is really all a girl can hope for.

And now it’s the day of the bid-a day that holds more emotion and drama than any other on the campus calendar. During Rush ’96, an ambulance was summoned to the Student Center to tend a girl who had fainted. Within minutes, onlookers (including a reporter from The Daily Campus) heard a rumor that the girl had passed out because she didn’t get the bid she wanted. The truth of the matter: According to SMU police records, the girl was involved with Rush, but she blacked out because she hadn’t eaten in two days and was on medication. Students, though, are inclined to believe the first version. They think it sounds more credible.

Ashley’s sweating above her top lip and around her temples. The administrator has started counting. Girls are already halfway out of their chairs. Ashley hears “Three!” and jumps out of her seat like it just caught fire. The ballroom fills with shrieks and sobs as the girls read their cards. Most of them race for their houses to start their days as fledgling pledges, but a despondent few who don’t get the bid they want sneak back to the dorms to wallow or pack their bags. They were the ones who came here just to go through Rush, and now they’ll have to try it at a different school. As for Ashley-she gets her dream bid. She sprints for the Kappa house and spends the afternoon crying and hugging as many newfound siblings as she can. Her mom watches and tears up from the sidelines. Neither of them wears faces of worry any longer. Ashley’s made it; she’s in.

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