FRIENDS, a local non-profit support group for families with Down syndrome, is hosting its 15th annual Buddy Walk at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 12, at the ETSU soccer warm-up field. Teams for the walk are made up of “buddies,” or families and caregivers of individuals with Down syndrome along with the individuals themselves. The walk, which is just shy of one mile, is being used to celebrate the individuals with Down syndrome. They will be cheered on as they pass through the archway, given a medal and a goodie bag, and have their picture taken with the event’s grand marshal, Claudia Byrd from Speedway Children's Charities.
Besides the walk itself, there will be inflatables and carnival-type games for children, music by DJ Alan Dodson, live entertainment by Kryss Dula and Friends, face painting and pictures by Jonesborough Repertoire performers, a balloon artist, and a photo booth. Light snacks and drinks will be served. Local businesses and professionals will be offering resources, products and information for the families.
FRIENDS is using the Buddy Walk as a way to promote awareness and understanding of Down syndrome in the community. Their goal of raising $40,000 will go toward events, programs and education for local families. A small percentage of the funds will be donated to the National Down Syndrome Society for research.
At FRIENDS events, strangers become family as they receive emotional support, knowledge, and understanding about their children with Down syndrome. FRIENDS has roughly 100 members who meet up monthly to provide socialization and friendship for children and adults with Down syndrome and their parents or caregivers.
Misty Adams, president of FRIENDS and mother of 2-year-old Zaylei who has Down syndrome, said that the group’s events provide a social network for children with Down syndrome as well as for the parents.
“When parents first receive the diagnosis that their child has Down syndrome, they’re unsure of what to expect,” said Adams. “When they join FRIENDS and attend events, we become family.”
New mom Rebecca Kouvas knew she needed support when her baby was in the hospital with complications from his Down syndrome. She received a bag with information about Down syndrome from FRIENDS.
“It feels great to be around other families who have gone through the same thing or are going through it now,” said Kouvas. “Children with Down syndrome have to have a lot of different types of therapies. It’s hard to do that every week. It’s good to hear their experiences and just to have fun.”
FRIENDS hosts monthly events and activities for various age groups for individuals with Down syndrome as well as a mom’s night out and a separate dad’s night out. Activities and events are planned based on age and skill level, and are divided into different groups.
“The biggest thing children get from FRIENDS is the social support,” said board member Jana Webb. “Children with Down syndrome want to do what everyone else does and be accepted, and they are loved and welcomed and feel acceptance at our FRIENDS activities. That is why it is so important for them to be around other children with Down syndrome.”
Adams said the best part is that the children are creating relationships that will last their entire lifetimes. “They’re happy and they love life,” Adams said. “Our events are so happy, full of smiles and hugs. You really can’t be in a bad mood when you come to events, because when you walk through the door, usually five kids want to immediately give you a hug because that’s what they love to do. You can’t help but to leave happy.”
The support group hosts speaker series for professionals to come teach the group of parents what to expect at different stages of the child’s life, such as what the families can be doing to support and help their child.
“We cover topics that will help our families navigate their child’s life whether it’s learning how to walk or starting school,” said Webb. “We help them know what to ask for when it comes to help at schools and what’s appropriate and healthy for their child. We cover later in life topics, like whether they should live at home or get a job. We address many of those kinds of issues to answer the questions of the families.”
Membership for the child with Down syndrome and their caregivers is free. Geographic areas covered include Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, a small part of North Carolina and Kentucky with most activities centered in the Tri-Cities. Their acronym, FRIENDS, stands for Friends Reaching, Inspiring and Educating Neighbors about Down Syndrome, and was started by a few families 15 years ago.
For information on how to join FRIENDS in their efforts to support families with Down syndrome, to donate money to the cause, or to register a team for the Buddy Walk, call Misty Adams at 865-898-7828 or Jana Webb at 423-946-3734. Check out upcoming events at www.dsfriends.net or www.facebook.com/FRIENDS.TriCities.