Stella Pickett, a popular senior at Martinsville High School, is hoping for the homecoming crown at Friday’s football game.
Or perhaps it’s just her family, friends, teachers and supporters who are wanting the crown for her. Stella is a cheerful 20-year-old with Down syndrome who simply seems to appreciate the people and activities at school, no matter her title.
When Stella, a native of Bulgaria, was adopted, she joined a family that now includes six children. Her parents are Scott and Chandres Pickett of Martinsville, and her siblings are Viktorya, 17; Ayden, 15; Elijah, 13; Denny, 12; and Sadie, 9. Half the children are special-needs children who were adopted.
In February 2014, “we committed to Stella,” who then was living with a foster family in her native Bulgaria, said her mother.
Stella was the first foster child in her geographic region, Pickett said. She had been living in an institution when she was taken in as a foster child by a former employee of the institution. After working there, the foster mother became a social worker and welcomed little Stella into her home.
The adoption process took 10 months — “which is short,” Pickett said, but the Picketts by then knew the ropes of international adoption — and “she came home” in January 2015. She was 15.
Stella grew up where everyone spoke Bulgarian and only encountered English as a teenager, Pickett said. By now, she most likely has forgotten Bulgarian.
Stella communicates through a combination of words and hand signals, her mother said. Her first full sentence, when she was 16, was, “I want music, please.”
Even though the words don’t come consistently, “she never stops trying to communicate,” and she doesn’t show signs of frustration, Pickett said. “She’s pretty patient. If you don’t understand, generally she’ll show you” what she wants.
“Stella’s definitely a fun kid,” her mother said. “Everything is dancing and music, especially Minions [animated characters].”
Stella loves school, Pickett said, especially “Coach Murphy.”
When asked if she liked to dance, Stella replied cheerfully, “Lurphy!”
That’s Stella’s nickname for Coach Murphy, with whom Stella likes to dance, Pickett said. Then Pickett asked the same question: “Stella, do you like to dance?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
Coach Murphy is Lynn Murphy Jones, a physical education teacher, who said, “I don’t know what it was, but from day one, we clicked.”
She and Stella stand outside with clipboards to take attendance of the students who go off campus. They also make the rounds each morning greeting everyone, which has gotten Stella the role as “official greeter” of staff and students, Jones said.
“She makes everybody’s day,” Jones said. Even if someone looks to be in a bad mood, he or she ends up smiling after an encounter with Stella.
“She’s a staple of our school right now. All the kids love her,” she said.
When it came time to start choosing the homecoming court, Jones said she and other teachers thought Stella would be an excellent candidate.
“We called Chandres, and she said, ‘Of course!’” Jones said.
“I didn’t realize it was such a formal process” to be a homecoming candidate, Pickett said. Candidacy requires two letters of recommendation from teachers, grade information, an essay and a petition signed by 20 students.
“There was apparently a line” of students wanting to sign Stella’s petition, she said.
Pickett said she made her daughter’s campaign posters, and Stella enjoyed helping hang them in the school.
“It’s been a fun process for everybody. She’s walking around telling everybody, ‘Stella for queen,’” Jones said.
Stella’s positive experience in homecoming court is representative of the good experience she has had in the high school and community beyond.
This is “an incredibly inclusive environment,” Pickett said. Stella goes out on errands or activities almost every day and consistently encounters “incredible people who are supportive, and the school is a big part of that.”
Today during their lunch breaks, students will vote for homecoming king and queen among seniors and prince and princess among juniors.
The winners will be announced during Friday’s football game against Patrick County, which starts at 7.
“She just loves being in school,” Murphy said. “She’s always so happy, and her happiness is contagious. You can’t have a bad day hanging out with Stella.”
This version of the story corrects the spelling of Down syndrome.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.