One afternoon two weeks before homecoming, James Wells arrived at Rowan County High School to pick up his daughter Zoe and received some surprising news. Zoe, an 18-year-old senior who has Down Syndrome, was just nominated by the students as a candidate for homecoming queen.
“I was shocked," says her mother, Delrita Wells. She'd always seen homecoming queens as different from her Zoe, whose congenital disorder causes mental impairment. But after thinking about it further, the choice made sense to Zoe's parents, whose patience seems infinite. After all, they recognized, she's really popular.
School principal Ray Ginter agrees. "She 's loved," he says. "I never see her walk down the hall without being in somebody’s arms."
Morgan Crawford, who is 17 and a senior, says that while Zoe can at times be hard to deal with, as are many teenagers, she's authentic and sweet. "She’s definitely a lover," she says. "She either gives me a hug or a high-five when I see her."
One buddy Zoe sees daily is Abby Caudill, a peer tutor for special education kids. A 16-year-old junior, Abby helps Zoe with math, writing and whatever she needs. "If I'm having a bad day," Abby says, "I look forward to seeing her."
The peer tutors help with socializing beyond the classroom, explains Zoe's teacher Judy Bailey, whom Zoe also adores. “Mrs. Bailey is marvelous, marvelous," she says.
She is pleased with Zoe's "astounding" progress over the past three years and sees her working part-time in the future. Like Zoe's parents, she's invested in helping her reach her full potential and helped get Zoe on the bowling team.
“Our community is just so accepting and they embrace Zoe," her mother says. "This town has watched Zoe grow.“ Her parents always include her in all they do, taking her to parades, festivals and school events, like the homecoming football game.
And one night last fall, standing on the field at halftime at Vikings homecoming with her escort and among a dozen candidates, Zoe was crowned homecoming queen. Half of the students had voted for her, a much wider margin of victory than usual, says the principal.
“The fact that she won really says something about the community,“ her father says. “They see Zoe for who she is – as an individual."