As Travjuan “Bubba” Hunter and Semone Adkins waved to a cheering crowd as their high school's homecoming king and queen, the moment was simply a validation of what their classmates have thought of the two teens with Down syndrome all along.
“The student body has just embraced them, and all of this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the admiration and respect from the student body,’’ teacher Jim Mattingly, who specializes in working with students with intellectual disabilities at Florida's West Orange High School, told TODAY.com. “It's just been absolutely breathtaking to watch.”
The two seniors and longtime friends are the first special needs students to earn the honor at the Florida high school, according to the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida. The student body voted them as the winners at their high school in Winter Garden, Fla., last week, beating out a field of 10 finalists from a senior class of more than 800 students. They competed in a talent competition, rode in a parade, and came out in style in a black Maserati and a red Ferrari as part of the homecoming introductions before the school’s football game on Oct. 11. They were elected independently, meaning Bubba could have won and Semone could have lost or vice versa, but the nearly 3,800 students at the largest high school in the county and the 10th-largest school district in America felt Bubba and Semone deserved it.
“That moment was awesome,’’ Karen McNeil, Semone’s mother, told TODAY.com. “It was something that I can't explain. When they chose Bubba and Semone for the homecoming king and queen, I feel that those kids really proved that they are just like everyone else, and they can do anything any other person can do.”
Making it particularly emotional for the mothers of both children was the fact that Bubba and Semone, who live just blocks apart and have known each other since the age of six, each overcame the odds just to be born. McNeil had a previous child die at three years old due to neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer, and she found out Semone would have Down syndrome when she was seven months pregnant.
“I was supposed to have an abortion with her,’’ McNeil said. “I would have had to have had a partial abortion because I was so far along in the pregnancy, and the doctor wouldn’t do it. I thank God he did not let me be able to have that abortion. That's why it was such a big deal for me when Semone won because she really wasn't supposed to be here.”
McNeil also overcame complications during Semone’s birth that nearly killed her.
“When she came out, I was scared to look at her,’’ McNeil said. “I wasn't educated about Down syndrome, but then I heard the doctor say, ‘She is beautiful.’ From that point on, I started hemorrhaging and almost died, but I promised God that if he let me live, I would love her and take care of her forever. When I said that, that's when my blood pressure started coming back up.”
Bubba was born prematurely at 23 weeks old and weighed less than three pounds. His mother, Janice Morgan, could not bring him home for nearly another two months while he was kept in a neonatal intensive care unit.
A particular highlight of homecoming week was the couple's performance at the talent show in the school’s auditorium on Oct. 7. Semone had the crowd on its feet with a performance of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).’’ At the conclusion of the song, Bubba walked out, got down on one knee, and put a ring on her finger. He then removed his Clark Kent-style hat and glasses and opened his shirt to reveal a Superman outfit.
“The audience went crazy,’’ Mattingly said. “Bubba is just such a popular young man, just so friendly, that everybody just enjoys him, and it doesn’t take long for him to make friends. Semone is a little more reserved, but when she went up on stage in that talent show, she just came alive. She put on a great performance. It was just very inspirational.”
“She loves Beyonce, and she loves that song, so it didn’t surprise me at all,’’ McNeil said.
Later in the week, the couple rode in Jeeps through a parade route in town as part of the event's “Welcome to the Jungle” theme, before their big night in advance of the football game. Local businesses, teachers and other school personnel donated their outfits and accessories: Bubba sported a black tuxedo and Semone was in a sparkly gray dress.
“I felt like (the students) accepted her for who she is,’’ McNeil said about her daughter. “When she won homecoming queen, I was just really happy that she is here. She’s still so excited from all the coverage that whenever she sees a news van, she jumps up and starts waving. It’s just a time that I’ll never forget.”