By: Elaine Martin
One would think merely wearing comfortable shoes would be the only necessity for going on a walk with friends; however, a participant in the GRADSA’s Buddy Walk will be bringing not only his or her sneakers but also an open heart and a joyful spirit.
Saturday, September 27 marks the seventeenth annual Buddy Walk to support the Green River Area Down Syndrome Association. On this day, folks will be on hand to celebrate Owensboro’s kids and adults with Down syndrome who are more like everybody else than different. The National Down Syndrome Congress’s website promotes the theme “More Alike than Different,” which highlights this fact. “They love to dance, bowl, have pets and jobs. That they cope with everyday challenges and dream big dreams. That like all people, they deserve respect and a fair break.”
Renea Estes, fundraising chairman for the Buddy Walk, knows firsthand the similarity theme is both important and possible. When her daughter Chapel was born with Down Syndrome, one of the first physicians she met stressed, “Don’t treat her any differently than any of your other children.” Renea and her husband, Jonathan, were living in Bowling Green and quickly plugged into a local Down syndrome organization to surround themselves with parents that started walking alongside the Estes family.
In 2011, soon after their move to Owensboro and joining our local support system, they grew in their involvement with GRADSA as Jonathan stepped into a leadership role as president of the board. He said, “I came to Owensboro with a fire in my belly to help families as others had helped us. This is more than helping my daughter. I had a calling to grow awareness within the general public and help others.” The board consisted of 5 passionate members who were trying their best to care for special need families. Attendance at a national Down syndrome conference in February 2013 opened the board’s eyes to diversify their ranks by reaching out to business leaders in the community.
“I had a lot of lunches and cups of coffee to implement and grow the board,” says Jonathan. His perseverance paid off, as they added 13 new members. He adds, “It’s not about the money but about the knowledge and connections these people bring.” Renea said the original board consisted of mostly parents of Down children with desire, yet now they have added people who want to serve with their unique business sense and knowledge. She says, “Our board is stronger, with lots of heart and passion. They shine a light on what we are.”
Allen Sabins, one of the new folks on the board, explains, “The reason why GRADSA exists is to help those that are directly impacted and educate those that are not. I knew that I needed to be part of it, plain and simple. I asked Jonathan when the next meeting was, and from then on, I have been a board member of GRADSA.”
Community awareness and education happens in part due to their largest fundraiser, which is the Buddy Walk. Last year, over $50,000 was raised, and organizers are hoping to surpass that total this year. A large portion of the money raised is used locally to benefit individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. Over 300 families in seven counties are reached through a bi-monthly newsletter, educational meetings, social activities, a website, and both new parent and hospital outreach programs.
GRADSA’s social events, such as their annual Christmas gathering and Holiday World trip offer more than a chance to catch-up with friends. Renea says this time is a great opportunity to network and share ideas. “I’m not going to be around a lot of kids with Down syndrome sitting around a normal get together. At GRADSA events, you may think you’re going to a social, but when you sit and talk with other moms, there are so many things you learn. ‘How you can get your child into this? What’s going on here? What’s going on there?’ It’s just a huge opportunity. I don’t have to recreate the wheel, but I get to learn from someone who’s been there and can guide me.”
The Buddy Walk welcomes individuals and teams alike to register and join the party. You can form a team for a certain individual with Down syndrome or for GRADSA as a whole. Teams with Most Creative Name, Most Creative Banner, Largest Team, Best Spirit, Most Creative T-shirt (should you decide to design your own), and Most Money Raised will be recognized. Registration and donation information can be found at any Independence Bank location, which is this year’s sponsor.
Festivities on September 27 begin at 11:00 at Smothers Park. Lunch will be provided along with entertainment, such as inflatables, balloon animals, and face painting. There will also be performances showcasing local talented individuals with Down syndrome. “The Buddy Walk is like a huge family reunion, where people come together to love and support their friends and showcase what they have to offer the community,” says Renea.
The opening ceremony is at 1:00, with 2014 Ambassadors Jonah Edge and Sheri Storm greeting and giving a gift to every child and adult with Down syndrome. Jonah and Sheri will also lead the walk and carry a themed “The Sky’s the Limit” banner. Last year, 800-900 walkers participated in the walk, and organizers are hoping over 1,000 participate this fall.
Thinking of the impact that having a special needs child has had, Jonathan said, “All of our kids are special, but Chapel has done something extra special for our marriage. I just can’t put it into words. She is our greatest gift, and we try to gift others. People don’t know this unless we shout it from the mountaintop.”
Jonathan’s “mountaintop” leadership in GRADSA has definitely gifted one mom, according to Allen Sabins. “She was the parent of a child impacted with Down Syndrome, and she was on the verge of tears. These were tears of joy, based on all of the education, events, and love GRADSA was providing for her family. She could not stop saying how much this ‘fit the need’’ and she wouldn’t know what to do without it.”