Student with Disability is Host Family’s Shining Star

Stella with Host Family in a park
With encouragement from host friends and family, a Kenyan teenager "thrives" in her American school.

When Katharine Royal was five years old, she told her grandfather that one day she’d welcome a child from Africa into her life. Years later, her childhood dream came true as she and her husband opened their home to Stella, a high school exchange student from Kenya who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

Katharine understood the challenges that Stella was facing. Like Stella, she, too, has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

"Pretty much before [my friend] even fully asked me if I would consider hosting Stella, I told her we are doing this."

Stella attended Pine Forest High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. "This is the first time that Stella has been in a school that is not all kids with disabilities and she is thriving."

She was an excellent student and became involved in wheelchair basketball. “We found out about the wheelchair basketball team and she has been all over the U.S. in competitions with them."

Stella quickly became part of Katharine’s family. They visited the beach together, where Stella swam in the ocean for the first time. They have gone on trips to the aquarium, wildlife museum, and even the Hollywood Walk of Fame in California. Stella has also enjoyed family time at home, including playing Scrabble, teaching Swahili to her host family, and cooking.

“She’s the best thing that’s happened to me since the day I met my husband. I wish she could stay longer than a school year. I guess you could say we’re trying to pack eighteen years into ten months.”

As a person with a disability herself, Katharine knew she would have to advocate for Stella’s needs.

“When you are hosting a student with a disability, just like when you are a parent of a student with a disability, you need to be assertive. Otherwise things simply are not going to get done.”

Now a veteran host family, Katharine is very open to advising potential host families for future students with disabilities. “I really think I could provide some information that they may not have access to. The biggest thing is don’t look at the kid as [just having] a disability. If you spend so much time focusing on the disability you are going to miss out on getting to know the student, and the experience will not be nearly as awesome as it could be. Many people get hung up on disability and they miss stuff like that.”

Ultimately, Stella is interested in becoming a human rights lawyer and would like to return to the U.S. for college when she finishes high school. “We are having a blast. She is like our kid. It’s no shock that her name means star, because she is definitely our shining star.”