On any given Friday night in the fall, Ann Switzer can be found underneath the glowing lights of a football field cheering on the Owensboro Catholic High School Aces. At 18 years old, she is like most other high school students. Bubbly and energetic, she serves as co-chair of the dance committee, is part of the OCHS Pep Club, adores her sister Maymie, and previously served as a representative on the homecoming court.
Charismatic, friendly, and independent are all words peers have used to describe her endearing demeanor and personality. Ann Switzer is “just another kid,” a description her mother Cathy considers the greatest compliment she could ever receive as a parent.
“Ann was born in 2000 and diagnosed with Down syndrome. We knew there would be challenges throughout her life, but there have also been just as many positives,” Cathy Switzer said. “She is an overcomer, and a joy to everyone she comes into contact with.”
The daughter of Todd and Cathy Switzer, Ann’s childhood was full of diverse dynamics that help set the foundation for her success as a teen and young adult.
“We have always worked diligently to expose Ann to as much as possible,” Cathy said. “Ann attended public preschool, learned to read at Sutton Elementary, and attended Montessori school during middle school. I feel that these opportunities strengthened her in many areas not just academically, but socially as well.”
Social experiences like those presented during her years in elementary and middle school helped build her confidence going into high school.
“Catholic High has been overwhelmingly supportive. Ann is the first student in school history with Down syndrome, and the school has really embraced her. She does everything on her own, she’s very independent,” Cathy Switzer said. “She has friends, she’s very much a socialite. She has great teachers who have taken the time to really invest in her.”
When Ann decided to try out for varsity cheerleader her freshman year, there were mixed emotions in her household. When she made the squad her determination and spirit became infectious to those around her.
“She loves to watch games,” Cathy reflects through laughter. “There are times when she gets distracted waving to the crowd, but immediately bounces right back into the routine. She goes into practice with a great attitude, and returns in the same great mood. She truly loves it, and they love her.”
Her tenure with the OCHS cheer team continues into this school year, and has enabled Ann to experience once in a lifetime opportunities like cheering on the floor at Rupp Arena.
Reflecting back on the physical challenges Ann has faced over her life, Cathy is grateful for the drive her daughter Ann possesses.
“Sure there have been physical issues,” Cathy said. “Ann had a heart defect that was corrected at age four. She has overcome knee issues, having had two knee surgeries over a three-year span, but it hasn’t kept her down or limited her in any way.”
Defying odds, embracing her own unique identity, and excelling at most everything she tries her hand at, Ann Switzer is the epitome of everything GRADSA’s Buddy Walk embodies and promotes.
The Buddy Walk, an annual event established by the National Down Syndrome Society in 1995, celebrates Down syndrome awareness and raises funding for advocacy.
Ann along with her family have been actively participating in the local GRADSA Buddy Walk for years. The event will take place September 28 at McConnell Plaza. GRADSA which stands for Green River Area Down Syndrome Association has been a vital resource for the Switzer family since Ann was born.
“GRADSA has been supportive from day one for our family. I honestly can’t say enough about how much support they have shown us throughout the years,” Cathy said. “They are truly just an awesome resource to families within our region with special needs.”
Providing free services for families of individuals with Down Syndrome in 10 counties across western Kentucky, GRADSA is primarily funded by various fundraisers, the Buddy Walk being the largest. GRADSA currently serves some 200 families and counting.
Celebrating inclusion and acceptance, the Buddy Walk has been monumental in a number of ways within the local community.
“Ann served as an ambassador for the GRADSA Buddy Walk two years ago,” Cathy said. “Somewhat like the grand marshall of a parade, she had the opportunity to kick off the one-mile walk.”
Besides the joy it brings participants with Down syndrome, the GRADSA Buddy Walk serves as a gathering for regional families Switzer adds.
“We absolutely love the mission behind the Buddy Walk and how it brings so many families together,” Cathy said. “It’s an excellent opportunity to make new friends and reconnect with old ones. We look forward to it annually.”
Local sponsors as well as sponsored teams pull together to help contribute, some choose themes adding to the excitement of the event.
Events like the Buddy Walk only further confirm what the Switzer family and so many others already know—there are no limits to what individuals with Down syndrome can achieve.
Perhaps it is friendship that teaches us the most valuable lessons of all.
“Ann has remained positive her entire life. I truly believe Ann’s classmates and friends learn more from her than she does from them,” Cathy said. “It’s incredible. Knowing that my daughter blends in amongst her peers, that she’s just another kid, like everyone else, that’s incredible.”