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Buddy Walk celebrates abilities of those with Down syndrome

September 28, 2000

Buddy Walk celebrates abilities of those with Down syndrome



We are quiet during our trip home. Quiet, not from exhaustion, but from processing the day's events. We feel humble and invigorated because we finally find a place of belonging. For a few hours, our aloneness is extinguished.

On the lower west side of the United States Capitol, families, parents, friends and self-advocates of Down syndrome unite for a Buddy Walk sponsored by National Down Syndrome Society. We have a common vision. We rejuvenate a shared commitment. We smile with mutual respect and understanding.

Temperatures swell to the upper 90s, but chills run up my spine and down my arms. Everywhere I look I see the beautiful faces of Down syndrome. Infants, toddlers, teens, adults with Downs handing out infectious smiles and generous hugs.

My 10-year-old son, Michael, who has Down syndrome, demonstrates his delight dancing to the beat of the Macarena on the Capitol steps.

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"Today is about abilities, not disabilities," announces Chris Burke, co-star of the television series "Life Goes On." I feel a thunderous roar of applause coming from within. An ambassador for Down syndrome awareness, Burke continues to live by his own words. His acting career, promotional appearances and active schedule for advocacy clearly focus on the "abled" aspects of his talents.

"Wow!" whispers Mary Gonzales. "I had no idea of how many people were going to be here." Mary and her husband, Mark, have made their way from Hagerstown to the heart of Washington, D.C., to participate in this fifth annual Buddy Walk, joining the effort to promote awareness and inclusion. As parents of Josh, a 4-year old son with Down syndrome, they seek inspiration and connection.

As the walk progresses around the Capitol, she catches the growing wave of energy. "We can make a difference in the future of our Downs children."

Mary's son was too sick to travel today but she sees him reflected in the beaming smiles of every Buddy present.

"I just hope we can accomplish all that is needed. My son should be able to go to school with no discrimination. And, when he's older, he should be allowed to go to work without discrimination."

I feel the empowerment, too. More than 60,000 people will participate in more than 120 Buddy Walks throughout the United States during October, National Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Plans are also under way for several international Buddy Walks this year, including events in South Africa, Singapore, Ecuador and Australia.

The message is clear. Promote understanding and acceptance of all people with Down syndrome.

"It is a beautiful sight," she says, watching politicians and parents interact. "A very hopeful sight. We must focus on what can be done - not what can't be done."

I look at Michael and tell him, "We'll be back. For as long as you need me, I'll continue to be your buddy."

* * *

To check out all the latest information and to find out what's happening with Buddy Walks in other cities or to join a Buddy Walk, go to www.buddywalk.org.

The sponsor of the Buddy Walk campaign, The National Down Syndrome Society, may be reached at 1-800-221-4602, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012-2317, www.ndss.org.

JoEllen Barnhart is assistant to the director for Frostburg State University's Hagerstown Center. She has three sons.

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