The National Advocate for People with Down Syndrome Since 1979

National Down Syndrome Society
666 Broadway, 8th Floor
New York New York 10012
800-221-4602
info@ndss.org 

My Great Story of the Week

The My Great Story campaign seeks to ingite a new way of thinking about people with Down syndrome by sharing stories by and about them. Each week, one story is featured as the My Great Story of the Week. Share your story!

Walking with Seth

Teresa Miller, Mt. Carmel, IL

I was walking across the yard today with Seth. We were strolling more than walking, as he had wrapped his arm around my waist, and was looking at me as if to say, "This is nice." I asked Seth, "Did you have a good day?" I know he can't answer me with words, but the look on his face seems to say, "Yeah, I guess I did." So much of what Seth and I say to each other does not happen verbally. He has a way of looking into my very heart and speaking to me without saying a word. We have a connection that transcends speech. A connection that is so effortless, that I sometimes take it for granted.

Seth has had a pretty rough summer. His grandma died in May, and I spent much of my summer gone, helping take care of my dad, who became very ill for a time. I was trying to work full time, grieve for my mom, do what I could for my dad, and still be Mom in my household. Dad and big sister more than made sure that his needs were being met. I checked in with him when I could. Seth became so used to seeing me on Skype, he would go sit in front of the computer, waiting for me to show up. But even over the hazy connection of the internet, Seth could tell Mom was not OK. He tried very hard to make me feel better. I think he even became depressed, either not understanding what was happening, or maybe understanding too well.

As we were strolling across the yard, no more than a minute from the bus to the porch, it occurred to me that in all of the upheaval of the last few months, I had forgotten how to walk slowly. Seth always walks slowly, probably because of his physical limitations, but I suspect mainly because he can. He has the ability to be completely present, with whomever and in whatever situation, with no thought to "what next?" Seth gives your heart his undivided attention. His heart converses with your heart. Walking slowly, arm in arm, swaying to Seth's wobbly gait, I realized how much I have missed time with Seth. In that one minute walk, I was reminded how much I need Seth to help me slow down connect.

I owe so much to this child. I am often told how lucky Seth is to have us. I always reply with something like, "We are the lucky ones." It has occurred to me that we saved Seth's life by bringing him into our family. But Seth has more than "saved" me. He has renewed in me the value of the human connection. His skill is in being present with you. His reward is to see your smile. Life is much more beautiful when I slow down and look at it with Seth. I'm so thankful that Seth has taught me how to walk slowly.

There's Nothing He Can't Do

Sharon Randall, Andover, MA

We were devastated when we found out Davis had Down syndrome. All the thoughts of what he wouldn’t be able to do flooded our minds. Now, almost ten years into the journey, we know those initial thoughts were based only on our own ignorance. Life with Davis is a constant celebration of all he can do. Here he is proudly showing off his gymnastics skills in anticipation of the Special Olympics Summer Games that were hosted in Boston in July. When it’s not gymnastics, it’s baseball, or swimming, or tubing, or jet skiing. What can’t he do? We haven’t come across that that yet… go, Davis!

 

Grace the Surf Goddess

Grace Mehan, St. Louis, MO

There are no ocean waves in St. Louis. We have to drive a long way to get to the ocean. Every summer we squeeze our stuff, ourselves, and our dog Buddy into the car and drive 1,100 miles to reach Vero Beach, Florida. Once we get there, it’s all about fun at the beach. I’ve wanted to be a surfer for a long time. My brother Brendan is a really good surfer, and my mom used to surf when she lived in Florida during college. I begged my mom to let me surf, and she promised to find a surf coach for me. He found me instead.

One day when my mom and sister Maggie were taking an old surfboard to a surf shop for repairs, a surfer held the door open for them and helped them carry the board inside. They started talking and learned he’s a swim coach and surfing instructor. My mom asked him if he had any experience with Special Olympics or working with people with disabilities. He did and told her he would love to work with me. That’s how I met my friend, Coach Bill Bolton, in 2011. 

First Coach Bill taught me the pop-up. We practiced it on the sand before trying it on a surfboard. I like being on the surfboard, floating in the ocean. I tried to pop-up to stand on the surfboard but didn’t make it up for long enough. I rode a lot of waves on my belly and knees but wiped-out when I got to my feet. I had so much fun surfing with Coach Bill in 2011, but I didn’t make it to standing on the board. 

When we went to Florida this summer, I had more surfing lessons with Coach Bill. We worked hard on the sand and in the water. I wanted to ride a wave standing more than anything. On our third day together we took our surfboards out past a sand bar where small waves were breaking. I came close to standing each time, and on the last try of the day I got up on my feet and stayed up! I was so happy! So was Coach Bill. 

We went to the same surfing spot the next day. Guess what? I got up so many times and rode wave after wave. My mom said, “You’re a surfer, Grace!” Coach Bill called me a “surf goddess.” My sister Maggie also tried surfing that day. She was great and became a surf goddess, too. It was one of the greatest days ever! I hope my story inspires you to go surfing or to try something new. I know you can do it! xoxo, Grace

Amina... Supergirl!

Jeanne Dallahi, Londonderry, NH

Daughter. Sister. Cousin. Friend. Student. Gymnast. Dancer. Competitor. Performer. Athlete. Fighter. Cancer Survivor… Supergirl! My daughter, Amina, is all of these things and more, and at just eight years old, she is truly inspiring! She shows us every day the way to persevere, to overcome obstacles, and to live in the present with joy and optimism. To me, she is amazing because she can get up on stage and perform her dance routines at a recital, compete in the all-around at her gymnastics competitions, and even ran the 300 meter race last summer – running – not walking - the entire race! After a recent dance performance in front of hundreds of people, she got off the stage and said to me with a huge smile, “I did it!”

Amina’s motivation, determination, strength, and resilience have enabled her to thrive, not letting her disability or cancer hold her back. At the age of three, Amina was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). On May 27, 2008, she began what would be a 25 month – two years and one month – cancer journey. During the next two years, she fought for her life – enduring an intensive and prolonged chemotherapy protocol. She had multiple surgeries, blood transfusions, and near daily chemo infusions and medications. She was immune suppressed, leaving her very isolated from her friends and classmates. She missed an entire year of school, returning to the classroom the second year whenever possible. But throughout her treatment, Amina persevered – her desire to play, hear music, dance, and keep up with her brothers, kept her progressing and gaining.

Throughout it all, she kept her fantastic sense of humor, laughing and giggling, looking adorable in the hats that covered her bald head. And her journey brought our family so many silver linings like our Make-A-Wish Disney trip, Camp Sunshine experience, our meaningful participation as “Amina’s Crew” in the Jimmy Fund Walk, and the support and kindness given to us by others. Amina was an Honored Hero for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and a Pedal Partner for the Pan Mass Challenge, providing inspiration and motivation with her joyful spirit.

On June 28, 2010, when she was six, she had her final dose of chemo, at last able to reclaim her childhood. Today, Amina is eight years old, is cancer free, and has many friends and an amazing team who support her. She goes to dance and gymnastics classes with typical kids, performing and competing. And as a new venture, she will be competing in her first Special Olympics at the Summer Games. We count our blessings as we watch her do beautiful cartwheels across the mat, perform a challenging dance sequence on stage, and read 149/150 sight words on a reading test. We see her run on the playground with friends, holding her beloved Barbies, her now long brown hair blowing in the wind, and we remember how lucky we are that she is a fighter, a survivor, a precious gift... our Supergirl!

Our Summer Girl

Katie & Evan Routzahn, Brunswick, MD

On June 18, 2010, we started our summer by welcoming our twins Jack & Avery into the world. We soon learned our beautiful daughter had Down syndrome. Our first summer as parents was filled with mixed emotions. We were beyond thrilled to be new parents, but we also had moments of fear about what Down syndrome would mean for our daughter and our family. Looking back we wish we had been given a crystal ball when we received her diagnosis...

Fast forward two years to August 14, 2012 - we are just ending an incredible summer with our two-year-old twins! We see first-hand every day that the “little something extra” really does mean “more alike than different!” Our sweet Avery spent her summer celebrating her birthday and friends’ birthdays, going to Dutch Wonderland for the first time, playing at the park, eating popsicles and ice cream, swimming, playing in the backyard, staying up later than usual, going to picnics, celebrating the 4th of July, visiting the library, playing with friends, reading books, watching movies, and spending time with family. The highlight of Avery’s summer would be our annual beach vacation to Cape Hatteras, NC. She has been going every year since she was three months old. However, this year she was actually walking on the beach! She loved playing in the surf, swimming in the ocean with Mommy and Daddy, digging in the sand with Jack, feeding the seagulls and looking for seashells. She also got to spend time with her Great Grandma and Great Aunt who happen to live there! It has been an amazing journey to watch our daughter grow into a beautiful little two year old toddler who is full of life! We cherish the time we spend as a family and appreciate the memories we are creating for our children. 

We are sad to see summertime coming to an end, but look forward to fall filled with fun things like pumpkins, Halloween, our Buddy Walk. Go Team Routzahn! Of course as all parents do we still have moments of “fear” regarding both of our children, because you always want your children to be healthy and happy. However, we have learned so much information and met so many wonderful and amazing people within the Down syndrome community, and we no longer fear “Down syndrome.” We know that it means the little girl who came into our family two summers ago has a very, very bright future ahead of her! “Everything is Possible!”

Awareness & Advocacy for Anders

Kara Jones, West Fargo, ND

In honor of my son, Anders, age four, and in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, our family celebrated by doing the following on 3/21: 

- Anders sported a bright yellow "3:21" NDSS t-shirt at daycare.

- I ordered “Taking Down Syndrome to School” and send each of his classmates home with a copy and note explaining the significance of the day.

- Our YMCA daycare director posted NDSS posters with facts about Down syndrome at five center sites in our town and she coordinated a fundraising effort to support our local Down syndrome group, “Up With Downs.” 

- Our local news station interviewed the YMCA director, me and even Anders!  The story showcases the importance of this day and that kids with Down syndrome are “More Alike than Different!”  

Blue and Yellow Popcorn

Maria Neumann, Pocatello, ID

We are going to celebrate my four year old daughter MaKenna's World Down Syndrome Day by watching an inspirational movie. I ordered the Hallmark movie, "A Smile as Big as the Moon" and our family will be watching the movie, for the first time, during the week of World Down Syndrome Day. One of MaKenna's favorite foods is popcorn, so we will be sure to have plenty of that during the showing. During the day, I am going to send blue and yellow colored popcorn, raspberry lemonade flavor, from our local Popcorn Shop to my daughter's preschool class and to my son's first grade class. The bags of popcorn will each have a tag stating the importance of World Down Syndrome Day. The night of World Down Syndrome Day we will be going to our church's AWANA bible training group. I will sharing popcorn bags with my daughter's bible training class that night and letting them know the importance of the day.

West Teays Elementary Makes A Difference For World Down Syndrome Day

Steve Slack, Hurricane, WV

Sophie, my beautiful eight year old daughter, has Down syndrome. She goes to West Teays Elementary in Hurricane, WV. At the beginning of February, I asked if the school could recognize World Down Syndrome Day on March 21. I did not expect the school to do more than a small display.
    
On the same day I made the request, I received an email from Jana McGinnis, the school's vice principal. It started off with the sentence, "This is a wonderful idea." She said she would like to put up an educational display on the bulletin board in the front hallway of the school. Sophie already had bookmarks to hand out that day. My wife and I agreed that between the display and Sophie passing out the bookmarks, she would have a nice day.
   
About a week later, Ms. McGinnis contacted me. Since March 21 was on a Wednesday this year, she decided to have the display stay up the whole week and have the morning announcements include facts about Down syndrome. Of course, I was very happy about hearing this and told my wife I could not ask for more.
    
Soon, I found out that there was much more planned. As it turns out, Ms. McGinnis is very interested in people with special needs. She lives by the motto, "We Are More Alike Than Different." As was explained to me, this was an opportunity to teach the school what all people are capable of accomplishing. What resulted was a week-long celebration of Down syndrome. All the bulletin boards had displays. There were the facts about Down syndrome read to the students in the morning announcements. There was also a school assembly on Monday that included an explanation of Down syndrome, pictures, videos, and a remarkable woman, Missy Mitchell, who was interviewed by Ms. McGinnis. Ms. Mitchell has Down syndrome. She is also a teaching aide, a singer, a purse designer, and a self-advocate. I took off from work to attend the assembly. The feedback from the students was touching.
 
The next day, the students volunteered to take the pledge to end the derogatory use of the r-word. On Wednesday, Ms. McGinnis wanted to do something with this year's NDSS theme of doing something extra for World Down Syndrome Day to celebrate those with an extra 21st chromosome. The students could pay $1.00 to post a blue and yellow butterfly on the wall.
 
On Thursday, there was a door decorating contest. Each classroom's door was decorated to bring awareness about Down syndrome. On Friday the school had a walk-a-thon. Half of the proceeds of the walk-a-thon and the butterflies were scheduled to improve the playground for special needs students, the other half was to go to Down syndrome research. The students raised thousands of dollars. They also raised the spirits of the five children with Down syndrome that are students at the school. After the walk, a balloon was released in honor of each of those students.
My thanks and appreciation goes to Ms. McGinnis, the students, the faculty, and the staff of West Teays.

Inspiration

Rachel Efrosman, Staten Island, NY

My name is Rachel, and I have two sets of twins. My daughter Emma has Down syndrome. My Emma is the most amazing little girl I know. She inspires me everyday to be a better person. She is so determined to succeed, it makes me want to do better. She never gives up. She is in a regular school, in a special ed class. She loves going to school, and everyone loves her. There is something about her, that puts a smile on everyone's face. I am so lucky to have her in my life. 

For World Down Syndrome Day, Emma is going to bring books about Down syndrome, and pass them around to the whole school, to teach them all about Down syndrome. Her twin brother Zack will read a speech in class and talk about his sister, and all about what having Down syndrome means. On 3/21 the vice principal will announce on the loud speaker that today is a special day. Emma and I will bake blue and yellow cupcakes and hand them out at school. After that, we as a family will all go out to dinner to celebrate this special day.

Sign of the Times

Beth Hardinger, Brainerd, MN

In March of 2009, at 15 months old, Lauren was nonverbal. She didn't babble much and didn't use 'mama' or 'dada' meaningfully. We were told by her wonderful Early Intervention teacher to try sign language. Neither my husband nor I knew sign language, but were willing to learn if it meant we could communicate with Lauren better. We started off in April of 2009 with a baby sign book from our local library, only learning helpful signs such as 'more' and 'up.' She did her best learning at night, right before bed. We could teach her several signs at a time and test her in the morning she would remember them all correctly! By July 2009, she had about 25 signs that she used frequently to communicate with us. 

By March of 2010, she had 100 signs: Everything from people (mom, dad and Avery, her sister) to foods to toys. It was then we got our hands on a copy of Signing Time by Rachel Coleman. Wow. Lauren would watch the DVD a few times and would know all of the signs and their meanings. 

As of January 2011 Lauren is verbal, but still signs when she speaks. She knows 350 signs and uses 75 spoken words. She is a quick learner, needing only to be shown the sign and its meaning a few times and she memorizes it. We are still teaching her signs, because we consider ASL to be her first language. We have about seven Signing Time DVDs, and Lauren has them all memorized. She knows all of the songs, and can sign right along with Rachel. 
Lauren has received private speech services through a therapy center for nearly a year. We noticed that after the first session, she was speaking more. Lauren's Speech/Language pathologist wrote a book for kids specifically to help them speak. It is Lauren's favorite book and she will be videotaped as part of advertising for Miss T's book. 

When I first learned of Lauren's diagnosis shortly after birth, I honestly didn't know much about Down syndrome. The books that were given to me by the local Early Intervention office were outdated by 20-30 years. The things that were written in the book were so depressing: 'Your child will probably never walk/talk/learn to use the toilet. You will have to take care of your child for the rest of his life, because they are incapable of learning.' Yes. Those were the things a new young mother and father were being told. How heartbreaking. 

The more I read about Down syndrome (once we had access to Internet and modern books) the more hopeful I became about Lauren's future. And then we started signing with her. We were amazed at how fast she learned things (you know, because she was 'incapable' of learning). She has a very bright and successful future ahead of her, and we are so very proud of our baby.

My Best Friend

Taylor Crittenden, Mayfield, KY

Everyone has a best friend. Someone you talk to everyday, someone who knows all your secrets. Someone who can always put a smile on your face no matter how mad or sad you might be. My best friend is Andrew William Bash and he has Down syndrome. 

I met Andrew my junior year of high school. I was in a peer tutoring class and worked with the special education students in my school. I had noticed Andrew right away. He always had a look on his face like he was up to something or keepng a secret. The more I got to know him, the more I became interested in Down syndrome. 

Andrew always knows how to make me laugh. Whether he is singing at the top of his lungs or taking his shirt off when he throws a fit. I will never forget watching the same Barney episodes every day and dancing around the classroom together singing. Andrew has changed my life forever. He has made me a better person and a more accpeting person to people with disabilities. 

Seeing Andrew get so excited when he would see me walk in the room is what made my senior year the best ever. Andrew has opened my eyes in so many ways. Because of him, I know want to adopt a child with Down syndrome. I love you, Andrew Bash. Best Friends FOREVER.

Our Daughter's Name is Hope

Rosalie Forster, Worcester, MA

We chose our daughter's name before we knew that she had Down syndrome. She's the youngest of four girls and quite honestly my husband and I were bored with our recycled list of girl's names, but not so bored that we'd agree to naming her Cinderella or Shortcake like her sisters recommended. So... when my husband suggested Hope we all agreed that it sounded just right with Tessa, Sarah and Ellie! 

Hope was born three weeks early just like her sisters. We barely made it to the hospital. Right after she was born the doctor asked us if we'd met with a geneticist. Somehow, I knew exactly what that meant. The doctor then nervously told us how adorable she was and quickly asked us if we'd picked out her name. I remember hesitating and wondering if I should change it. Could I do that? Maybe it was too much, too sentimental, but we'd all loved it so much. I then remembered that it was my 39th birthday. I'm not someone that looks for signs, but these were too big to ignore. Our daughter was a gift and her name was Hope.

I think we knew that she was coming all along. Her sister Ellie had a marker for Down syndrome and we'd talked a lot about what it would be like if she had it. Of course we had no idea really, but we were convinced that we didn't want to be the parents of a child with Down syndrome. I knew that people would think we could handle it, but we were positive we couldn't. How could we have been so sure? The first five minutes we spent with Hope was the longest time we had ever spent with someone with Down syndrome. How could we ever have known our daughter before she was born? We never considered that Hope would love "Little Bear" or have freckles or have Mrs. McSherry for preschool just like her sisters did. It never dawned on us that Hope would teach us all to sign our ABC's. How could we have known that she'd be the first one to comfort us when we were sad, waiting anxiously for us to smile and then cheer, "No cry!" 

Maybe we didn't consider it because Hope helps us feel things more deeply than we expect to. Hope doesn't just tell us she's happy, excited, or proud, she pulls us in so that we feel as strongly as she does. Each day is filled with ordinary moments" Hope completing a puzzle on her own, jumping higher than she did the day before, Daddy coming home from work, dancing in the kitchen, but Hope's response to these moments makes us all feel like we are on the top of the mountain in the opening scene of the Sound of Music. We loved the idea of Hope before she was born, but we had no idea how much we'd love her once we got to know her!

Sisterly Love

Alicia Keyes, Clinton, MA

Every day I get to wake up to two beautiful little girls. Aila is my oldest and she's three years old. Kylie is my youngest and she's one year old. Kylie has Down syndrome. We found out about five minutes after she was born. I, of course, had the thoughts of her future, other people, and the normal thoughts that go through your head when you hear news like this but I took one look at her and made the decision to love her no matter what. I can never judge someone for being themselves. She needs me and I need her. I believe that if God didn't want me to have this miracle then he wouldn't have chosen me to give her to! The thought of how Aila will take it never crossed my mind. You never know how things will go for them even being that young. Aila surprised my husband and I by welcoming Kylie with open arms and not letting anything tell her different of her Kylie. 

Now, a whole year of Kylie in her life has changed Aila to be such a caring and loving little girl. I sit sometimes and watch them together when their on the floor playing. Aila makes sure that if she cries she gets a toy or a bottle that will help Kylie feel comfort. Kylie is starting to crawl and Aila is so encouraging by helping her and cheering her on! They both are amazing kids but I think having Kylie and her strong will to show that she is an amazing little girl, is a joy for everyone who meets her. I say I lucked out when Kylie was born because Aila took her in without judgment and wanted her to be her little sister. Kylie is so strong willed and has surprised her doctors by showing them that she is going to prove them wrong with every step she makes. She changes everyone's idea of Down syndrome and lets them understand that it's a gift that only so many of us can see and live. Every day is a challenge but I think you need to look at it as a great adventure instead.

Jack's Story

Jason Canterbury, Wesley Chapel, FL

Jack. God is gracious. Alexander. Helper and defender of mankind. 

"I see a head ... We have a baby boy!" our doctor exclaimed. Jack Alexander Canterbury was born July 2nd at 9:26 pm in Tampa. Maria and I felt both excited and nervous about delivering our new baby boy. Jack weighed a whopping 4lbs 2 ozs. We were very relieved, as days before doctors were concerned his birth weight could be as little as 3lbs. Maria's pregnancy was blissful, she glowed beautifully, and rarely experienced the side effects most women complain about. Eighteen weeks into the process, we received a phone call from the doctor advising our risk of carrying a child with Down syndrome jumped from 1:185 to 1:5. We were concerned, but this also meant the odds were in our favor. 

Our doctor recommended further testing and provided two options: level 2 ultrasound, or an invasive procedure called amniocentesis. Maria and I opposed the amniocentesis, as it introduced a risk of miscarriage, and we scheduled the ultrasound. On a sunny February Friday, we strolled into the specialist for our level 2 ultrasound. The technician remained mostly silent and impersonal as she moved the Star Trek wand over Maria's belly. We were totally enamored with the images of our baby growing inside, gooing and gawing over all of his tiny features. 

After an hour and half, the ultrasound abruptly concluded. The specialist entered our room with his findings: a few areas of concern, inconclusive evidence to form a definite opinion, and recommended the amniocentesis. My wife, the "planner" of our household, hesitantly agreed to the invasive procedure. The specialist returned with a long needle, gently inserted it into the womb, and drew a sample of amniotic fluid for testing. Let the waiting begin. 

The following Monday, I joined Maria poolside. The doctor's phone call was long overdue. It finally rang, "Hello" Maria asked. The voice replied "Hello Mrs. Canterbury, this is Doctor..." My heart immediately sank. I knew his results were not the results we sought; results we wanted would come from the nurse, not the doctor. On March 1, 2010, our specialist broke the news - Maria and I are parents of a child with Down syndrome. 

After much worry, crying, and extensive research, we felt more and more comfortable each day with our situation. We know this child is a gift from God, and this was part of his divine plan. Jack is now 5 months old, weighs 14lbs, and meets all of his milestones. Every day there are new learning experiences to be enjoyed. He is truly an amazing child; bringing us love and joy to levels we never thought possible. Jack is my world, and I am so grateful to be part of his. We love you, son!

My Florida Vacation

KIMBERLY DANIELS, NORMAL, IL

My name is Kim. I am 39 years old. Last winter I went to Florida with my mom and dad for a long vacation. I spent two whole months in The Villages, Florida and I had a great time. Before we left for our trip, my mom and I spent a lot of time packing clothes to take. My parents drove. It took us 19 hours to get to our house in Florida. We stayed in a motel one night on the way to Florida. I was very excited when we finally got there. It also came with a golf cart that I got to drive. 

In the house I had my own bedroom, bathroom, closet and a sliding door. First, when we arrived, we unpacked the car and got settled in. I found things to do and friends to be with. Wednesday and Friday I went to Bunco. I won many times then I would treat Mom, Dad and friends to ice cream at the shop at the Village Square. Thursday I would play bocce ball with my new friends. After playing we would go out to eat for lunch. On Saturday I would bowl with some of the same friends. Wednesday I would go to St. Paul Catholic Church for Friends' Club. We would celebrate birthdays, make a craft, had a devotion and had snacks. On Mondays Mom and I would go to Operation Shoebox. We would put baby wipes into Ziploc bags. Then we would stuff cloth bags for the soldiers. We would stuff about 600 every Monday. 

Other things I did was play shuffleboard, horseshoes, basketball, billiards and swim. Sometimes we would drive the golf cart to shows, concerts, grocery shopping, country clubs to eat and even into the McDonald's drive thru. At the Village Square we would dance to the music. I love to dance. We did some special things. Aunt Marilyn, Mom and I went to a fashion show. They drew tickets and I won a white purse. Then, we went to see a 50's show with lots of music. We ate out with friends one time for my birthday. We went to IHOP for lunch then went to Red Lobster for dinner where I had a special drink. One of my friends, Monica, has a sister with a convertible. I got to ride home in it. I got lots of cards and letters in our mailbox. 

We were in the Mardi Gras parade with our decorated golf cart. We threw confetti on the people. We wore Mardi Gras T-shirts. Later there was a St.Patrick's Day parade. Some relatives came to visit us: Aunt Judy and Uncle Jerry, Aunt Priscilla from California, Aunt Marilyn, Dick and Karen and Ruth (Karen's mom), Aunt Donna and Uncle Chuck and my brother and his family (wife and 4 girls). We had lots of fun. I have many memories and items that remind me of my great time in Florida. I can't wait to go back. Will have fun and see new friends.

About High School

Patrick Myshrall, Worcester, MA

My name is Patrick and I go to St. Pete-Marian High School. I went to jr. high school there too. I love it there. I feel part of everything at school. My favorite part are the dances, I went to the Winter Ball this year! All my friends went and I met new friends too. I danced all night. The kids in my classes are smart and fun. We work hard but laugh a lot. The teachers are nice too and they all help the kids. 

At St. Peter-Marian we have lots of fun days. On Halloween I was Indiana Jones. We have pep rallies and dodge ball nights. Sometimes we have Karaoke at lunch. Some friends from school came to my house for my birthday party which was a luau, a Hawaii party. It was crazy with tons of great people. 

I did a great job and was a member of the National Junior Honor Society because I got A's. Getting good grades very important to me. I work hard at school and at home doing my homework. I use the computer a lot and my favorite subject in school is Intro to MAC. I also take Geometry, History, English Literature, Biology 2, and Religion. 

For two years I have been on the Cross Country team. I practice with them every day and this year I competed in my first meet. I like to run. I love theater and have been in many productions. At St. Peter-Marian I have been in three shows so far, Dear Edwina, Godspell and the Sound of Music. Now we have started practicing for a new show called, "All Shook Up" like the Elvis song. My favorite song is Jailhouse Rock! I have been a member of the student council and like planning all of the events at school I had to give a speech to get elected. This is my first year on the SPM Bowling Team, and I love it! 

Outside of school it is fun playing Special Olympics! I am on Gymnastics, Basketball and Golf teams. My sisters and cousins also participate. I have lots of friends through Special Olympics. AIM stands for Advocates in Motion. It is a group from the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress and we meet every month. We do amazing things, like Outdoor Adventure and sailing and holiday dances. I have lots of friends outside of school too. We get together with families on the weekends. We ski, and do karaoke and just hang out. My family is Kailyn, Lizzy Kate and Tom and my dog Rhody. Lizzy and Kailyn are nice and we get along great. Lizzy is going to college next year and I am proud of her. It is also fun having a little sister like Kailyn. Thank you for letting me tell you about high school and my life.

A Thanksgiving to Remember

Richard Alesky, Downers Grove, IL

My late brother, Ronald Alesky, died at the age of 23, in a tragic house fire in 1987, three weeks before my wedding. Ronnie, as he was known to my family and friends, was the usual God's gift to everyone who came in contact with him. Ronnie had a knack for creating laughter that came from deep inside you. 

During one Thanksgiving dinner at my parents house, my brothers, my cousins, and I were all sitting at our own table enjoying a delicious traditional dinner, when my brother Ronnie broke into one of comedic acts. As we were all stuffing our faces and sipping on our drinks, Ronnie continued with one of his best routines to date. Food was falling out of our mouths and drinks were being spit across the table and out of noses as we laughed uncontrollably. It was the most horrific and disgusting moment ever in the Alesky household, and it just fueled the fire for Ronnie to continue his comedic rampage. 

After 15 minutes or so of hysterical laughter, the fun finally ended when my older bother Ray leaned back in his chair to catch his breath, and then fell forward with all his force right on to my cousin's big toe. The scream could be heard for miles. After the dust cleared, we had one broken toe, a table full of regurgitate food, and thousands of tears of laughter. Although concerned, Ronnie just sat there with his usual smug smirk, "made you laugh," look on his face. 

When our families get together we still talk about that day and it still makes us laugh. We all loved Ronnie for his humor, bologna sandwiches, Beatles music playing throughout the house, and most importantly, his unconditional love.

My Amazing Brother

Kian Morley, Scituate, MA

Some of the most influential people in my life are those I have never met. Authors who have written a good book, or a musician performing an emotional piece that touches me. These works have moved me, caught my attention and motivated me. Through music, I hope to enlighten others, the way these authors and musicians have influenced and enlightened me. 

Aside from famous artists, the most influential person in my life is my younger brother. While I have appreciated these famous authors, I have truly realized the satisfaction and importance in helping others through my relationship with my brother. When I was seven years old, my mother told me I was going to have a baby brother. I was so excited, and daydreamed constantly of all the fun things he and I would do together. After Cole was born, some time passed before my mom sat me down and told me that Cole was different from other children. She said, "Cole has Down syndrome." I remember her struggling to put into words that Cole may learn slower, he may never be able to do all the things that I would be able to do, but that it was very important to remember he would always need me. 

I immediately began to worry about many different things: "Would he be in a wheelchair?" "Will he ever be able to go to school?" I was very concerned with whether he would be able to talk with me, or understand the things I wanted to say to him. As Cole and I got older, I began to notice that his expression changed whenever I played my guitar or sang to him. He always looked so happy, calm and attentive at the first note of my song. Cole also learned in his own way to communicate with me through music, my instruments and imitating me. I learned some basic sign language to help us communicate, but I still saw a different, more content look in his eyes, a unique connection, when I played music or sang. 

One day, when Cole was about three years old, he was home sick with an ear infection. He was sitting in my mother's lap, crying, when I got home from school. I walked over to them, and rubbing his head gently, asked, "Oh my buddy, you don't feel so good?" Cole sniffled, crawled out of my mother's lap and over to my guitar. He pointed to me and then made the sign for "music." In that moment, I felt so valued, that he knew my music could soothe him more than anything else, yet I also realized how lucky I was to have a brother like Cole. I learned more from his communication to me that day than I have ever learned in school, or from reading great books, or listening to famous musicians.

Samantha's Superheroes

Tabatha Gonzalez, El Paso, TX

This past Saturday my family and I walked in the 2012 Buddy Walk in El Paso, Texas on behalf of my daughter Samantha. Samantha is 12 years old and was born with Down syndrome. She picked the theme this year for our family. She is amazed with superheroes so she decided that we would all be superheroes. Our team name was Samantha’s Superheroes. We each got to wear a cape as we walked amongst the other buddies on Saturday. Samantha enjoyed everyone stopping to admire her cape.

Team Cara Creating Awareness

Christine Samuels, Raleigh, NC

My daughter was born on 9/22/11. She was born with Down syndrome and as soon as I found out about Cara's diagnosis I wanted to participate in the Buddy Walk for my daughter.  The 2012 Walk was around the corner but so were some challenges in my life. My husband had to take a job 10 hours away and we were moving the weekend before the Walk in our hometown. I was so sad but I didn't have time to dwell - I had to pack and move my family of five in three weeks. 

Just two days before the Buddy Walk, Cara's cousin Jessica found out about it and decided to put a team together in Cara's name and raise money. In just five days Jessica raised $1,050! Because Cara had a team in our hometown my older two daughters decided to volunteer at the Walk in our new town. We had a blast and we are so proud of my niece for caring so much about Cara! Together we will spread the word that "Down syndrome is better than you think!" Love Team Cara Creating Awareness!

Opening My Eyes

Marjorie Magga, Roseville, MI

My name is Marjorie Magga, I have a 10-month-old daughter, Maddy, who was born with Down syndrome. She is my youngest of four children. When we found out she had Down syndrome, it was shortly after she was born. Fear was my first emotion. Would she be healthy? How would my other children react to her? Would she meet all the goals we had previously set for her? The answers were nothing but positive! She is happy and healthy! The other kids are so supportive and give Maddy nothing but love. She has met every goal we set for her and then some! Fear is no longer an emotion I have for Maddy..... love is! Maddy has brought so much joy to our family and has shown us that anything is possible. All of the what ifs are now a thought of the past, thanks to a great group called F.E.D.S. (Families Exploring Down Syndrome). They have showed me that Maddy is like any other child, and will reach any goal she will be given, it just may take a little longer. Maddy will attend school just like my other children, take dance lessons like her sister, play baseball with her brothers, graduate, and become successful in life. I wouldnt have my life any other way!

Friendship

Kat Ferreira, Turlock, CA

In July 2012 my daughter, Madison, and her best friend, Reichen, both celebrated turning four!  

Four years ago we didn’t know Reichen’s family. On July 4th when he was being born I was having my baby shower and at the time, I was blissfully ignorant about Down syndrome. Being 23 and pregnant with my second daughter, Down syndrome was nowhere in my mind or my husband’s. Then 20 days later on July 24th my baby girl was born and that is the day that ignorance was no longer allowed. Of course I didn’t know that day just what joy that extra little chromosome would bring and all the wonderful people I would meet because of it. 

Fast forward three months to our first Buddy Walk. I met a woman with adorable twins and learned that one of them has Down syndrome. It was exciting to meet someone who had a child so close to my child’s age; we exchanged numbers and promised to meet up. That meeting is what I believe is a big part of the Buddy Walk - if not for that I would not have met this amazing woman who would soon be one of my best friends and greatest confidants. As promised we setup a play date later that month, then another and another! We have continued getting together as much as possible and in doing so, have watched friendships grow not just between us but also our children. 

With Down syndrome there are so many emotions we are afraid to express to people because we are scared of the reaction we may get. Having a person who knew exactly what I was going through and in fact was going through it at the same time was life changing. I was never ashamed to call her crying about fears I had or ignorant people, sometimes doctors, I came across. She has always been there with complete understanding and never judging. Watching our children celebrate their birthdays every year makes me so happy because I know just as I have my friend who understands me and is always there for me, our children are building that same relationship year after year. That includes not only our children who have Down syndrome, but also our children who do not. Just as we need each other they will too and I am so happy that what started and continues as one of my greatest friendships is also turning into great friendships for both of my daughters as well.

My Isaiah

Angela Lombardo, Somerville, MA

31 reflections about my child who was born with this extra bonus called Down syndrome. This was written in honor of Down Syndrome Awareness Month, a thought a day:

1. I love the way his glasses droop off his modest nose bridge. 
2. I love his sense of humor and silliness. 
3. I love that he still loves to cuddle his mother when no one is looking. 
4. I love his determination to do things independently. 
5. I love his "selective" ability to articulate words perfectly when he is saying something TOTALLY inappropriate or private. 
6. I love the people and opportunities he has brought into my world. 
7. I love that he can read for hours on end, never getting tired of a good book.
8. I love his interest and curiosity for the world around him. 
9. I love his sarcasm and fresh mouth (at times). 
10. I love his ability to spit out quotes or reenact scenes from movies at the drop of a dime. 
11. I love the pride and self-esteem he has developed. 
12. I love the way he will turn, catch my eye, and smile at me with that sneaky little grin. 
13. I love the negotiation tactics he uses to get his way. 
14. I love the mess he never ceases to make when he eats. 
15. I love that he thinks he is the best thing walking this earth. 
16. I love his creativity in developing excuses when he doesn't want to do something. 
17. I love his sensitivity and concern about others. 
18. I love his big hugs that knock me down. 
19. I love his trash talking and blossoming ego when it comes to his athletic ability. 
20. I love the way he sticks up for people who aren't being treated right. 
21. I love the way the tops of his ears turn down a bit and the way he still giggles when I flick them! 
22. I love the way he reprimands me to calm down or be patient or not to worry. 
23. I love the way he rolls his eyes at me when I embarrass him. 
24. I love his charm and ability to engage people he meets. 
25. I love his recognition of others with special needs and how he attempts to "diagnosis" the world. 
26. I love his funky, almond shaped, chocolate eyes. 
27. I love the way he taught me to keep things in perspective and what is really important in this life. 
28. I love that he has no shame in belting out any song. 
29. I love that I can look at him and still feel in awe of the fact my little three pound sick baby has turned into who he is today. Blows my mind. 
30. I love how he has changed me and his father, making us both way better people. 
31. I love how this extra "bonus" created "my Isaiah."

Ethan's Entourage

Erica McCormick, Fort Dix, NJ

I am a mother of a six-year-old boy named Ethan who has Down syndrome. When he was born we did not know he had Down syndrome until a few hours after he was delivered the doctors came in and told me; my response was "special babies were born to special people." 

He puts a smile on everyone's face that he meets. He brings out the good in people and inspires me to be a better person and mother to him. Life can be challenging at times but it only makes us stronger. He is a funny, animated, charismatic, enthusiastic little boy! I feel Ethan was sent to me for a reason, he changed my life for the better and he has touched all of our families and friends lives as well. 

We had our Buddy Walk in Pennsylvania on Sunday. The only way to describe this day is AMAZING! The group that came out to support my son and my family was almost 200 people! Words cannot even describe the feeling I have that so many people were gathered there for Ethan. To know, that almost 200 people were there for my son is a blessing. I could not be any happier with the outcome of the day. The support we have for Ethan from family and friends is overwhelming. I am so thankful to everyone that took time out of their day to spend it supporting Down syndrome. 

The meaning of the word Buddy Walk to me means togetherness. Everyone there that day was there because of their special buddy whether it was Ethan or another person who has Down syndrome. I want to thank the Buddy Walk for having such a wonderful event where we can all go out and support our loved ones. All in all, I am very lucky to have been blessed with a child with Down syndrome and I would never change that for the world. He is destined to do great things and I will be right next to his side the whole way!

My Buddy Ryan

Lori Stiles, Martinsburg, WV

I met Ryan my first day as a scared permanent substitute in a classroom for moderately impaired students. I had no idea what to expect. The principal assured me it would be a great fit, that I "had what it took" to be a great teacher for these special guys. I was a bundle of nerves, not knowing what to expect. The buses arrived, the kids walked in, and my life and heart were changed forever. 

Ryan came in with his backpack full of his "precious cargo" and looked at me over his glasses. "Watch him, he's a runner and he doesn't talk too much," the aide told me. But I could tell there was so much more going on behind those big glasses than what anyone could imagine. Over the next few weeks I chased Ryan through the hallways, stopped at every water fountain in the school, and learned how to unlock a bathroom stall from the outside without crawling on the floor. He was really putting me through the paces, but I found myself loving every minute of it. I would go home and recount my adventures to my family and have them rolling with laughter. I had truly found what I was meant to be doing with my life, and it was in part due to Ryan and his daily challenges. 

Over the next few years, Ryan and I discovered many things together: a common love of music and theatre that helped Ryan come to life and start speaking out in class, the value of being silly for 30 seconds to get 30 minutes of work, the importance of the pizza line at lunch. One of the best days of my teaching career happened when Ryan started spontaneously reading aloud in class. We called his mom, we read to the principal, we read to the librarian, we cried tears of joy. It was something his mom was told he would never do. 

Before I knew it, I was once again enrolled in school, pursuing my Master's in Special Education. Ryan traveled three hours cheer me on at my graduation ceremony. Then came the bittersweet day of Ryan's graduation. Walking Ryan across the stage to receive his diploma was one of the best, yet hardest moments of my life. I was so proud of him for what he had accomplished, yet so sad that he would not be bringing his special joy daily into my classroom. 

Today Ryan is still a part of my life. He continues to inspire me to take on new challenges, try my hardest, and not let anything stand in my way. We travel together, work in the theatre, and he is now testing for his black belt in karate! Living life through Ryan's eyes has greatly enriched my life, and I will forever be grateful to him for helping me see beyond the surface and into the heart of everyone I meet.

Room 103

Kristen Dressel, Tampa, FL

The bold numbers above the door read, "Room 103." I stood outside and contemplated walking away. Presently still in high school I had made many assumptions. When I finally summoned up the courage, I walked through and I met Miss Silva who then introduced me to her students. The students seemed to be unaware of my presence and continued to play with their toys. 

I was then introduced to Alex, he was eight years old and had Down syndrome. In a raspy voice he introduced himself by placing his hand on his chest and repeating his name to me. Playing blocks with Alex and another boy named Devon, and also watching them, made my anxiety diminish. As soon as I realized they interpreted things just like typical kids do and interacted the same way, I made a personal connection to them. 

After that, I decided to dedicate my entire summer to getting to know them. Being able to see their defiance everyday, against people who misunderstood them was utterly inspiring. Being stared at, laughed at, and mocked on a daily basis would offend anyone, but they seemed to embrace it. The classroom I volunteered in had an array of different degrees of special education: some children had Down syndrome, some were severely autistic, some had an I.Q. of 31, and some were physically impaired. Though these students were misplaced by a former teacher or their parents, we made the best of the situation and made the classroom as functional as possible. Alex, and every other student I met this summer, irreparably changed my entire view on Special Education. 

Applying what I have learned from these students to myself is surprising. Seeing the students strive so hard at simple tasks and lessons was incredible. This showed me that if a person works hard enough, and has enough support, they can surprise anyone. Applying that to myself allowed me to have appreciation for what I am able to achieve. These students defy the odds everyday and have taken every opportunity they could get.

After going through this experience, I wish that regular students would take advantage of their abilities and fully realize the opportunities they have. I also believe that every person should have to work with a Special Education student at least once in their lives so they have the chance I did to reflect and grow from the experience. Alex and the other Special Education students I volunteered with have made me reflect on myself and what I have overcome personally and I am forever appreciative. Volunteering in Room 103 has made me want to become a Special Education teacher.

More to Give

Candy Ridgeway, Decatur, IL

The description of Down syndrome may lead people to think that a person has less of something. People think my students have less than others, less knowledge, less ability, less something. I am here to tell about one of my students that has more to give, more love, more understanding, more patience, more drive, and more ability than many people I know. In the time I have known Ashley, I have watched her mature into a bright, young girl who can do anything she sets her mind to. 

Ashley learned how to ride a two-wheel bike at age 14 and picked up a golf club and learned to hit the ball her first time out. Ashley rides horses in equestrian events and plays soccer. She plays basketball and has gone to the state tournament two years in a row, winning a medal each time. Ashley took up bowling when she turned 15 and improves her scores each week. Ashley went to summer camp for a whole week, her first time away from home by herself and loved it! Ashley is a volunteer at the children's museum and works with younger kids in their day camp. 

Academically, Ashley made the Honor Roll several quarters in her middle school career. She is studying hard right now to pass the Constitution test! Ashley is very good at science, history, and algebra. She can often be found reading a chapter book or two throughout the day. Ashley studies very hard and prides herself in getting good grades and doing her best. She is a member of the Cardinal Council group, 8th grade chorus and she is known to sing a Reba song every now and then (she is her #1 fan). 

Ashley has a loving, caring and encouraging family that has helped to provide her with the opportunities she needs to be who she wants to be in life. Her Mom and Kathy have set no limits to what Ashley can do and they have taught her how to deal with life's ups and downs, do the best she can do and have faith that things happen for a reason. Ashley is a true inspiration to people who take the time to get to know her and allow her to show them what she's got! 

Thank you Ashley, for teaching me so much about life, love, and learning. I believe people are brought into our lives for a reason, and I have been blessed to have you, Mom, and Kathy in my life. I am truly a better person for having known you these past three years. I look forward to watching you succeed in high school and after! Ashley not only has more to give than many people, the world has more to receive because students like Ashley are here!

Emma Grace

Shea Patterson, Pilot Point, TX

Our sweet Emma Grace was born March 25, 2010. She entered this world two weeks early for fear she would be ten pounds. She surprised us all by only weighing 7 lbs 11 ounces. Her brother was so excited to finally meet her. Emma Grace is "his Baby." You are privileged if you get to hold her, but only for a few minutes. He still whispers in my ear, "I want my baby back. Tell them to give her back," and I have to give her to him. He has loved her from the moment he learned we were having a baby. He couldn't wait to get to the hospital to see her and would cry when he had to leave. He held her, kissed her and hasn't stopped.

That night we learned the doctors suspected she had Down syndrome. They told us it would take 7-10 days to get blood results to confirm their suspecision. I agonized that I caused this. I was devastated. Not because she would not fit into my perfect dream of a little girl, but that I was afraid of what she would have to face growing up with Down syndrome. I was worried about her health and the challenges she would face. Would the ugly world we live in be cruel to her? How would she cope in school? Would she have friends? Would she be included in activities? So many questions it became overwhelming. It seemed no one understood my fears or pain. The answer I would get is "She will be fine" or "She's a gift from God." And that she is!

We learned quickly she would be a strong, determined little girl. She held her head up that night while her Daddy was holding her as if to say "Dont worry about me!" She continues to surprise us all. Her heart follow up showed the holes had closed and there were no heart issues. She was rolling over at three weeks. By Christmas she was crawling and at 16 months she started walking. She is the center of our family; the glue to hold us together and make us believe in miracles. She may have Down syndrome but it doesn't have her. She will continue to meet new challenges and conquer them. She is my strength! I thank God for her!

Daddy’s Girl

Kristin Hendricks, Apopka, FL

Da da! Da da! She turns her head toward the front door, drops her toys, stands up and makes her way quickly to greet her Daddy before he can even close the door. It will be difficult for me to sum up in 500 words the description of the love and the indescribable bond between my husband Chad, and our firstborn three-year-old daughter Maddie, who has Down syndrome.

He believed in her from the moment we found out she existed, the moment the doctor told us she had that magical extra chromosome and the moment I called him, hysterical after the news she was also hearing impaired. He truly knew Maddie would be everything we ever wanted in a little girl, even in the early days of her life when I kept asking the question "why us?" I heard someone once say that there is a difference between being a father and being a dad. I never fully understood this until I watched this man I loved so much before we had children together become a father.

Every day, Chad walks in from his 10-12 hour work day, he and Maddie greet each other with huge hugs and kisses. Her baby sister Presley is next and then mama. Her first word was "Dada" and she can spot him a mile away. When she first started walking she would roam the house saying "dad", and of course our two bathrooms were the first places she would look for him. She took her first steps the night before her daddy's 34th birthday so he would be home to see. Chad plays babies with her, reads her books, taught her how to dunk a basketball and even sings and dances to Justin Bieber with her! He isn't afraid of poopy diapers and has frequently been the one to get up with her in the middle of the night when she is sick.

He dedicates what little spare time he has to helping to enrich the lives of other people with Down syndrome. Chad has played an active role starting our local Dads Appreciating Down Syndrome (DADS) chapter in Orlando, FL, a support group for men who have a loved one with Down syndrome. It’s been an indescribable experience to witness his positive outlook empower other men who might not otherwise have hope for a bright future. Yes, Chad is Maddie's father in literal terms but I believe with all my heart my husband has been put on this earth to be Maddie's dad.

Trying on the Uniform

Katherine Macedo, St. Augustine, FL

A dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and Autism challenges a family trying to participate in activities most take for granted. Over the years we have found one that brings complete joy, adventure and a sense of accomplishment. The activity is the junior ranger program at the National Parks. 

We first learned of the program at Ft. Matanzas, FL. A ranger came up to our daughter Abby and presented her with a junior ranger badge. She was five years old and not too excited, but we were. Since then we have been to over fifty national parks. Together we participate in each park's junior ranger program, go to the visitor center and walk the shorter paved trails. Through the years we find our daughter participating more and more. 

Initially it was a challenge to even enter the visitor center or place a mark in the junior ranger booklet let alone show any interest in the junior ranger badge we pinned proudly on her blouse. Now with Abby at sixteen, we all enter the visitor center, check out one or two exhibits and even attend a few minutes of the park's movie. Together we can complete most of the junior ranger booklet and activities. Abby presents the booklet to the ranger to receive a junior ranger badge. 

One of the more memorable experiences was last summer at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, CO. Abby place the finished booklet on the ranger's desk, stood there calmly and looked him in the eye. When he presented Abby with a badge proclaiming her a junior ranger, the entire center's visitors, volunteers and ranger spontaneously clapped!

"Mr. Right On It"

Joan Rogers, Portland, ME

Self-Advocate Greg Rogers has been called "Mr. Right On It" because of his perceptive attention and focused presence to what needs to happen and inspiring capacity to energize himself to respond. This led him to be instrumental in helping a young African American boy who was thrashing around in water over his head to keep from drowning. The young teenager was screaming and thrashing. Greg waved his arms trying unsuccessfully to get the lifeguards' attention. Greg swam over to the boy who threw himself on Greg, pushing him under. Greg came back up and laid back. The young man lay across his chest, hands on Greg's shoulders, and Greg back-stroked to shore. When Greg's toes touched sand, another young man swam up, helping the boy get to the beach. His family rushed up. It turned out he had severe leg cramps in both calves and couldn't hold himself above water.

On another occasion Greg was in a Special Olympics track meet, having promised his dog Zambi he would bring her a gold medal. The time for his meet drew close. He became anxious he would fail: his legs were weak and aching, he "didn't feel that great." It was hot. He wasn't in great shape and there had been no training. Then he disappeared, presumably to warm up or go to the bathroom. He came back, plopping down somewhat out-of-breath. When asked where he'd been, he dismissed it saying "it was nothing important Mom." Later I received an email letting me know that a young man with Down syndrome had run up when he saw her daughter "stuck" part way through her meet. An aide was with her on one side. He helped her on the other side and cheered her on to complete her meet, to her great joy and excitement. It was her first ever event "Was he wearing a blue shirt?" Yes, it was Greg (later confirmed by him). Too anxious to get in the starting-line for his own event, his "dash-off-to-rescue" mobilized some greater daring do, and off he went to compete for the medal for his beloved dog.

Large-scale acts highlight smaller practices that are simply natural to Greg: crossing the street to tuck in someone's dangling gas-cap, quietly emptying his program's trashcans when they're overflowing and everyone's busy, snowblowing his driveway at 11 P.M. to make it navigable for a worker's car, buying flowers for a distressed worker, writing a thank you to a local reporter after hearing he had been seen on TV, concern for of a fellow-participant's safety leading him to recommend changes in approach to being out in traffic. In an age when there is much "passing on by" and preoccupied absent mindedness, Greg's gift for attentiveness, rooted in an orientation of deep caring, and his capacity for engaged and invested response has been an inspiration for me, encouraging more of the same in my own life.

Our First Special Olympics

Shawnna Saulsberry, Fort Lee, VA

This year the Summer Special Olympics were held in Richmond, VA and we decided to volunteer to cheer on the teams that were participating. My son, Jaire, has Down syndrome and we were casually walking around waiting for the torch lighting ceremony. A boy walked up, playing with his medal from the previous year. Then he looked up and saw Jaire in his stroller. He yelled, "Mommy, mommy, look, he is just like me! Can I please give him my medal?" His mom and I tried to explain to him that he doesn't have to do that, but he insisted. He took it off and hung it around Jaire's neck and called him a winner. His actions set the tone for a great, awesome weekend. Here's to you, Jonathan!

Nothing But Net

Tyler Gillespie, Largo, FL

On the day of my biggest junior varsity basketball game of the season, my mother went into labor with my brother John. No one in my family knew much about Down syndrome. I was 15 at the time, and I don't think that I had ever met anyone with Down syndrome. It was a reality-shock to us - my mother wasn't just going to have a baby at 40, but she was going to have one with special needs.

Almost nine years after that JV basketball game, John and I stood on the cement of my grandparents' driveway (my childhood basketball court). "Play ba-ketball," John said. He left out the "s" when he pronounced certain words, but he had repeated this phrase often enough for me to understand him perfectly. John's favorite sport was basketball " my mother did, after all, go into labor during one of my games. "You Le-bon James, I Dw-ight Howard," he said. John rubbed dirt off the back of my car, put his hands together, and kissed them. He looked at me and grinned as he threw the dirt in the air - a pre-game ritual Lebron James performed with baby powder. John posed with crossed-arms like he was in a television commercial. He loves to watch NBA games on television, and the two Florida teams are his favorite. I passed him the ball, and he took a quick shot. The ball bounced off the front of the rim, and he grabbed the rebound. He shot the ball again, but I was able to block it - I usually went easy with defense on him, but sometimes I liked to block it, just to let him know that I was still the big brother.

When John was five, he could barely shoot the ball or dribble, but now, at almost 9 he can do both. For dribbling, he used to just run around with the ball, trying to keep it from me instead of shooting. I passed him the ball from his missed rebound, and John tried to dribble the ball between his legs. He stuck his tongue out a little, like Michael Jordan, and bounced the ball hard on the cement. He could actually play a pretty mean point guard for a little kid. The ball hit his knee, and he tried again. After his sixth missed through-the-leg attempt, John shot the ball at the hoop - nothing but net. I had lowered my rusty hoop, the same one that I had played with when I was John's height, to about nine feet, a height that he could easily make a basket. As the ball swished through the net, John ran over to me and gave me a high-five. We both laughed as the ball bounced under my car. On the day John was born, I could have never imagined that my little brother would one day give me a run for my money on the basketball court.

Superhero Day

George Estreich, Corvallis, OR

It was the last Friday of summer camp, and it was Superhero Day. Laura has a trunkful of play clothes, but beneath the tiara, the tutu, the fireman's coat, the silver-starred black velvet magician's hat, and the extensive emergency room gear (kid-sized scrubs, garage-sale stethoscope and blood pressure cuff), the choice was obvious: the Supergirl costume we'd bought the October before. Despite Laura's recent growth spurt, the costume still fit. It had been a cold summer, even for Oregon, so the long sleeves did not seem excessive. Laura is ten, and she has Down syndrome.

In general, I dislike the idea that people with Down syndrome are here to teach us things. I think that they should not need to justify their existence with reference to us, because they are part of us, they are us. Still, I have learned many things from Laura, and one is that it is possible to march up to the day camp check-in table in blue velour and a cape without any apparent self-consciousness at all. I don't have plans to don a cape anytime soon, but it enlarges my world to know that the possibility exists.

I stood back, watching Laura as she checked in. ("Aself," she'd said, shorthand for "I'll do it myself," meaning that I am not to walk her to camp check-in tables or school entrances.) The camp counselor exclaimed that Laura's costume was awesome, and Laura agreed that it was. Then she sat down on a bench and waited to be taken to her group. About half the kids on the bench had dressed up, so along with Supergirl, Spiderman, and a couple of improvised costumes that may or may not have represented licensed fictional characters, there were kids in shorts and T-shirts and sneakers. It was as if they all had superpowers, but only some had chosen to reveal them.

What are Laura's superpowers? She's tough, which we saw as she healed from her heart surgery. She's stubborn, which we see both when she is trying hard to read, and insisting that reading is too hard. She is hopeful. She has power over time and space: once, frustrated by the long wait for her birthday, she simply turned the calendar page from January to February. She makes other people happy just by walking down the street. For me, though, Laura's greatest power has been to make the invisible visible. I never really noticed people with Down syndrome before Laura was born. Since she came along, I've come to know many of them, and to see that their place in society depends not only on what they do, but on how they are received. I don't know what things will be like when Laura's an adult, but I'm willing, like her, to be both stubborn and hopeful: with enough work on her part and ours, I think she'll find a place. Whatever her superpowers, I think she'll find an ordinary way to belong.

Summer Rites of Passage

Arlene Platten, Redondo Beach, CA

He has been attending Camp Escapades in Torrance, California, for nine summers-- and for the first time he hasnt ripped the ID sticker off his t-shirt and thrown it to the ground. Instead, my son Joseph pleasantly greets the counselor by name and shakes his hand. Then he pats the sticker with a smile. The dawning of compliance is indeed a welcome rite of passage as he nears the age of fourteen.

It's the start of Joseph's last season in this wonderfully familiar environment for children with special needs. He'll be too old to participate next year. At present, he's thrilled to be back and that's all he cares about. His beaming face is proof. But as I leave him basking in the joy of initial salutations, I am beset by odd twinges. Certainly not the kind I experienced when he first started camp as a five-year-old. Those were the combination guilt-anxiety flutters that faded once I drove away and realized that I was blessedly free for several hours to do whatever I wanted. At that time, Joseph had more attention and behavior issues that kept him and me - constantly at the edge. He flailed and cried so plaintively when we first parted company, I doubted if we ever should. Camp counselors correctly thought otherwise.

Today the twinges are entirely different. They are born of awe, with a tide of nostalgia passing through. I am amazed at Joseph's present developments. He is tall, calm, athletic, handsome, with signs of peach fuzz on his upper lip that must have sprung the moment I noticed his voice had gotten deeper. But this time, as I move towards the silent freedom of an empty car, my steps slow down, and an unexpected achiness washes over me. Nine summers. Nine years. My family and I have profitably used the time on so many Joseph-centered things: school meetings, sports programs, therapies, behavior classes, park dates, beach outings, family vacations, summer camp itself. I should feel proud of all these involvements; yet I realize that much of our activity has been spent on managing and getting through. Focusing on logistics. Rushing here and there. Striving more than thriving. Meanwhile, Joseph's childhood has been moving on. Just like summer camp, its expiration date is near. And Joseph, without making it too obvious, has been steadily growing each moment.

Until today I never fully stopped to consider his more nuanced changes as rites of passage too. But they are. Beyond compliance and cordial handshakes, they comprise numerous skills in self-management, household tasks, schoolwork, and communicationall from observing and absorbing the simple content of each interval. Summer is going by quickly. Camp will be wrapping up soon. Learning to savor the simple moments before they add up to increasingly bigger changes is a summer rite of passage for ME. I'm pretty sure Joseph can lead the way.

My Daughter, My Angel

Maria Torres, Flushing, NY

My daughter, my angel... This is my personal story of what it is like having a child with Down syndrome. Before Angela was born, I had no idea that she would have Down syndrome. The joy of having my first baby was soon overshadowed by the news that my daughter was not going to be "normal" and would face many challenges in her life. My family and I decided that whatever challenges this little girl would have, we were going to take her home and love her and help her all we could to reach her full potential as a human being.

Those first few weeks and months were a roller coaster ride of emotions for my family and me especially. Most dads go to work and have other things that occupy their time, but us moms are the ones that face the challenges day in and day out with our kids. Sometimes I would be able to go about my day caring for the needs of Angela like any mother would do with a new baby, but at other times I was filled with sadness and disappointment and even a little scared of what the future would hold. During the nine months you wait for your child to be born, you dream, plan and envision what your child's life will be like, who they will become, what accomplishments they will achieve. It seemed as though all those dreams and hopes had died with Angela's diagnosis.

With the help and support of family and friends I tried to focus on the positive and being the best parent I could be. One of the first things I did was to educate myself about Down syndrome. I drew strength from sharing with others who had children with Down syndrome and I also learned what to expect in the various stages of my daughter's development.

My daughter Angela is now 15 years old. She doesn't go to the movies by herself, take the bus or accomplish many of the things other young girls her age have done, but she has far exceeded the expectations I was given those 15 years ago. Angela bowls weekly and has an average score of 120. She swims with the Special Olympics, she rows with the Row NY program in Flushing Meadow Lake every Saturday, she goes to our local church, movie theater, she attends summer camps, dances and other social and community events. Every year we go to Colombia, Florida, to the beach, parks, amusements parks, etc. Contrary to what some people say about the poor quality of people with Down syndrome, you could never convince Angela and her friends that they do not have fun and fulfilling lives.

Angela and her friends have taught me some very valuable lessons like learning to love and accept people unconditionally, patience and realizing that individuals with disabilities have feelings and emotions just like other people do. My life has been blessed in many ways by my daughter Angela. Angela, I love you.

How My Dad Helped Me To Become The Man I am Today

Chris Burke, New York, NY

I have learned everything- a lot- from my dad. His name is Frank Burke. He has raised me since I was little. We had the best of times together. We always did. In good times and in bad times. But he is the best father to my sisters, Ellen and Anne, my brother, J.R., and me.

We like to go to the beach and swim with him. His favorite football team is the New York Jets and his favorite baseball team is the New York Mets. All of us sit together and my dad tells us what is happening in each game. He always loves to watch sports. He always did, ever since his ultimate favorite the Brooklyn Dodgers were around. And he always loved Jackie Robinson.

He likes to fish and to take us out on boat rides. And he's the best chef. He cooks sauteed, grilled and fried fish, and loves to eat lobster all the time. He likes to tease us about what he likes to eat- fried eels and calf's liver.

To our dad: Happy Father's Day! Ellen, Anne, J.R. and Chris

All I Really Need to Know I Learned From a Kindergartner

Jennifer Rowland, Carlisle, MA

The best teacher I have ever had is six years old. Her lessons are masterful and seamlessly delivered in the most natural ways. Becca, a kindergartner who is fully included in her neighborhood school, has taught me more in the last six months about teaching than I gleaned from any of my teacher preparation courses:

1. Have high expectations: Admittedly I began the year with the goal that I would teach Becca to read her family members' names by the end of kindergarten. Within weeks of starting school in September, Becca had learned not only her family members' names but those of friends and teachers too!

2. Have fun: Learning must be fun. What's the sense of doing it if you can't have fun?

3. Be flexible: Sometimes you're just not going to teach what you planned the way you planned it. Becca often has better ideas for how to proceed with the materials I present to her.

4. Celebrate the "little" things: After years of referring to herself as me, Becca now says her name! She is learning to zip her coat. Becca can identify colors. She can tell her teacher that she is buying lunch.

5. Smile: Becca enters school with the biggest, brightest smile! Her smiles are contagious and leave her impression on everyone she comes in contact with throughout the school day.

6. Be dramatic (and not just in the dramatic play area!): Teach like you are giving the performance of a lifetime. Enthusiasm and intensified actions are too enticing to ignore.

7. Communicate: Daily communication between teachers, specialists, paraprofessionals, and parents keeps everyone abreast of Becca's daily happenings and allows us to maintain consistent language and goals between school and home which enriches Becca's learning.

8. Try new things: You might say I am technologically challenged. But when I was presented with the opportunity to have an iPad for Becca I jumped at it. Little did I know Becca would excel at maneuvering around the iPad. She expertly uses it to look at pictures, practice skills through games, and to communicate with Proloquo2Go.

9. Make it personal: Becca adores her family, friends, and teachers. Relating new learning to her favorite people gives the learning purpose and meaning. Becca has learned to identify many of the letters of the alphabet because they were connected with a loved one's name.

10. Trust inclusion: Becca is the best teacher I have ever had, but her classmates are the best teachers she has had. Innumerable and immeasurable "teachings" occur throughout each and every day. Becca's peers are her models, her teachers, her students. They model language and teach her how to be an active participant in her class community, while Becca teaches them the most valuable lessons.
Have fun... Be flexible... Smile... Try new things "Make it personal" Lessons that will last a lifetime. Thank you, Becca.

My Graduate

Christine Baker, Houston, DE

My Graduate! Wow, what can I say about my 18 year old daughter, Chelsie N. Taylor? It all began on February 6th, 1993. Being 19 years of age, simply a baby having a baby, I had to grow up fast. I didn't find out until 4 hours after her birth what all the hustle-and-bustle of doctors, nurses and looks of concern were about. To me, she was perfect, all her toes, fingers, arms and legs. She was not abnormal to me but to everyone else she was. I remember the doctor coming to me to explain what was going on with my baby girl. To this day I knew everything was going to be a learning experience.

We went through bowel surgery at five days old, heart surgery at six months old and minor surgeries that accompany "typical" childhood years. Then, at age three we started pre-school and I saw my little "train" that could blossom. There wasn't a day that went by where she didn't amaze me, from the day she rode the bus by herself to every little step, to sit up, to feed herself, to grip things to play with and to the one day she said what every mother wishes to hear: "Mommy!"

One thing that I have learned from her is to take it day by day and to love unconditionally. I appreciate my daughter for teaching me how to love and to smile just because. I often wonder what it would be like to be in her "world" with peace and no worries. Today Chelsie is a healthy loving young lady who is proud to have Down syndrome and nothing gets in her way. As you can see, she is now a graduate of Caesar Rodney High School with a class of 412 other young adults.

In August, we will be starting a new adventure, college; where she will continue to grow and learn life skills to allow her to be a part of a community and workplace. I am a proud mother of an 18 year old with Down syndrome - everyone can learn from them!

Our Amazing Isabella

Andrea Burniske, Stevenson, WA

Isabella Beatrice Burniske is our amazing daughter. She is 9 years old. We adore our daughter Isabella and wouldn't change her for the world. That extra chromosome makes her who she is. Isabella was born in Peru, and then, after heart surgery at 1.5 years, spent 4 years of her life in Tajikistan so she learned to understand Russian very well and spoke it a little. We have lived in Bogota, Colombia now for almost 4 years. Isabella speaks Spanish better than English and it seems to us that she thinks she is Colombian.

Here in Bogota Isabella goes to a great private school, the Colegio Anglo-Colombiano. The board created a special policy to admit some kids with Down syndrome to promote diversity in the school and to enable these kids to have a good education. Here in Colombia the law says that schools cannot exclude kids with intellectual disabilities, but in reality they find all kinds of ways to do this, so we were very grateful when after much difficulty we encountered this accepting place. Isabella has been having swimming lessons for three years now.

She is also a natural horse rider, sitting tall in her saddle from the first time she mounted a horse. She loves to look at her books (she is learning to read now), drawing (she makes these great Kandinsky-esque drawings), music and sports. We have a home in Skamania, Washington, on the Columbia River gorge. She switches cultures with ease, and when we go back there, she is happy to play with her cousins and do Pacific Northwest things " like ride in our cars, climb rocks, and visit waterfalls.

She has trouble with some concepts, and has had a great struggle to learn to speak "'' mainly with grammar. Probably learning many languages at once had its pluses and minuses in this respect. At age 9 she is in kindergarten, but she is thriving there and we do our best not to compare her with her peers. As long as she continues to progress, this is the important thing. I fear she is lonely sometimes. All the kids are great to her at school, but she doesn't get invited over to play. This has a lot to do with the culture here: that the families all know each other and socialize, and that Colombians spend most of their time with their extended families. I think it would be very nice for Isabella to have a group of friends who also have Down syndrome, and to do this we must go back to the U.S. and live in our home there.

I am hopeful about her chances in life though. I heard there is a college in Washington State that has a program for kids with developmental disabilities. If it is true, I am sure Isabella will eventually be able to go there. Whatever her future holds, she will meet it with enthusiasm, joy and creativity as she always has.

A Family Like Ours

Ayoca Freeman, Hartwell, GA

On Saturday we took the girls fishing and boy, oh boy, did we have a fun time together! Taylor, our oldest, is nine and has Down syndrome, and Trinity, our youngest, is two. We cruised around the lake until we thought we had the perfect fishing spot. We threw out our fishing reels and patiently waited for a bite. From time to time, Taylor would pulls hers back in though because she wanted to throw in another spot. Finally, Taylor did get the first bite!

She reeled the baby fish in, smiling from ear to ear and we all were so excited! After a few minutes passed, Trinity, our two year old, asks "where is her mommy," she went on to say "she wants her mommy and that she misses her mommy." We were thinking that we were going to have to throw this fish back into the lake. Finally, Taylor gets another bite! She proudly reels in this fish and Trinity says, "oh there is her mommy." Then Trinity says, "where is her daddy?" The poor little girl still wasn't satisfied. But guess what, Taylor gets another bite. This time she reels in the daddy and this fish was bigger than the other two. He did really seem like he was the daddy.

We thanked Taylor for a job well done but Trinity thought something was still missing. She then asked "where is the sister?" I thought, "you have got to be kidding me" but then it dawned on me, she wanted a family like ours. Taylor was getting tired by this time but she knew she needed to try to catch the sister and she did! As Taylor reeled the sister in, we were all patiently awaiting her arrival. As the sister came in, Trinity says, "oh there she is!" We praised Taylor and were so proud of her for catching our little family!

By this time, I wanted to cry. Our little family isn't perfect but it is perfect for them. I am so thankful that Taylor has a little sister like Trinity, who already believes in family and knows how important it is. Taylor is the best big sister in the world and loves Trinity with all her heart. I know without a shadow of doubt that Taylor would have fished all day to find a little family like ours for her baby sister. We are proud and very thankful to be the parents of these sweet little girls!

To My Mom with Love...

Chris Burke, New York, NY

I would like to wish all of you moms a "Happy Mother's Day." I would like to talk about a wonderful person whom I was raised by, my mom, Marian Burke – since I am her baby, and I always will be. My favorite three words to say to her are "I love you." It's great to be your son. We really do have a lot of great times together - through my early childhood days until my adulthood. We have had good times and bad times, which is very true, but she has always been there for me a lot. But not just for me, for my dad (her husband Frank), and she's dedicated to her children, Ellen, Anne, J.R. and, of course, me.

My mom's favorite TV shows are Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and Dancing with the Stars. And her real favorite is to watch me in "Life Goes On." She loves to read her books that she really likes very much. My mom always loved Point Lookout, New York, which is out in Long Island. She originally lived in the Bronx through her childhood days, and didn't like wild animals – my mom has always been a city girl. She loves Manhattan, where she lives with my dad and me. She used to work for the George Little Management and now is a retired trade show manager.

As I am dedicating a tribute to my mom, Mother's Day really means a lot to me because she's a Wonderwoman. She's a woman who does a lot of wonders for all of us. This is a Mother's Day gift from Frank, Ellen, Anne, J.R. and me, Chris. Thank you for all you do for us. We will always love you so much with our hearts. I love my mom very much, and I really mean it – every single word. She is the most beautiful girl in the world and I will always cherish her. She decorated my life. It's great to have you as my mom. From your darling Chris – Happy Mother's Day. With all my love – this is your gift of love.

Up Syndrome

Adriana Ferretiz, Palestine, TX

My name is Adriana and I am the proud mother of a handsome 7 year old with Down syndrome. My son's name is Mario Nicholas but we have always called him Nick. When Nick was born my husband and I instantly knew our baby was very special and unique as I'm sure any new parents feel but what we didn't know is that our sweet baby boy was indeed a special little gift specifically given to us from God. We found out Nick had Down syndrome when he was 3 months old. His sonograms never showed us anything and the bloodwork was all normal. He didn't look like a child with Down syndrome therefore his doctor nor us even thought about it until his facial features started to change. I thank God that till this day Nick has a perfect little heart.

We were hit with a HUGE adventure that we knew nothing about out. It's not always an easy road but well worth the effort and i wouldn't change it for the world. I was chosen to be his mother and I will always fight his battles for him for as long as I can. Nick has been in school for 4 years and he loves making new friends and is very good at it. He has a brother and a sister who love him very much. He is the sunshine in our home and I couldn't imagine not having him in our lives. He is full of life and sees the world as one big happy place to play in and I admire him. My son is my hero and I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He is perfect and so amazing to me. He has taught me so much and each day is a new adventure and I am always looking forward to it. He doesn't speak much but knows how to let us know exactly what he wants. There is nothing down about Down syndrome because it has made our family stronger and has filled our lives with lots of love. In my opinion it should be "Up" Syndrome. These are special angels that only a few of us get chosen to be a part of their lives.

My Great Story to My Mom

Carson Goodwin, Greenwich, CT

I love my mom. I love my family. I love hanging out with her. I like her very much and I like spending time with her. I love my family very much. I'm going out to Cosi with mom. We have dinner together. I like having a Coke with her. We will have a great time, enjoy the day and have a great afternoon on Mother's Day. And I'll have a good time at my mom's house on Mother's Day. I love her very much. I love my family, I like my job, I love my apartment, I love my friends and I love Greenwich Avenue. My mom is a great lady! She's very nice and she loves her children Jake, Elliot and me.

Jacob – The Magic that Mom Needed

Nancy Parsons, Hartsburg, MO

Don't we all wish there was a surefire cure that could change something about us we don't like? Let me tell you a story about this mom's "magic cure." In 2007, my 5'3" frame carried more than 240 lbs. Shortly after I celebrated my 40th birthday, my husband Dale and I learned we were expecting a third child - surprise! A few months later, another surprise came. Our baby had Down syndrome. I knew nothing about the chromosomal condition, but was relieved to learn that my neither my habits nor health contributed to it.

Dale and I knew our love for this miracle would equal the adoration we have for our two older kids, but the unknown is always scary. We learned children with Down syndrome often lack the muscle tone to develop physically without help. Born in early 2008, Jacob was healthy otherwise, but needed consistent exercise to gain basic physical skills. At only a few months, we were working with him every day as he struggled to hold his head up or roll over. He grew tired after just a few minutes of therapy, crying softly from frustration and exhaustion. I had always disdained exercise myself. I felt terrible as I coaxed my tiny baby through the routines. This will never end, I thought. He will always, always have to work hard for the strength to climb a flight of stairs or jump across a puddle in the street. Things I can do easily, even though I have never really taken care of the body God gave me. How will I ever explain to this sweet child why he must be so diligent - not to excel, but just to hope for status quo? Even as I asked the question, I knew the answer.

As a parent, sometimes you give advice, but much more often you must lead, and allow your child to follow. On August 23, 2008, I took photos to document the beginning of a journey. It was no surprise to me that I had reached over 255 pounds. I chose an eating program and resolved to exercise regularly, just as Jacob did. Walking 10 minutes slowly on a treadmill (with no incline) left me breathless, but I did it every day. A full life for my son, for all my children, illuminated the end of that long tunnel. There were no rest stops for me, not this time. Jacob and I learned the joy of accomplishing goals, even small ones, together. When we rejoiced at a victory for him, I also celebrated the junk food I passed on that day. By my 42nd birthday on June 1, 2009, I had reached 138lbs.

Jacob is three now. Through hard work and his wonderful therapists, he can walk and climb. When he accomplishes something new, he claps for himself, and his giggle is contagious. I've maintained my weight, and still climb onto the treadmill every weekday at 5:30 a.m. This is the mom Jacob knows - he will never know the woman I was before.

The Best Mom

Jennifer Hinds, Laguna Hills, CA

My mom is the best mom in the entire world. She encourages me to try everything. I am very lucky that she is my mom. So I am ready for Mother's Day. I wrote the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner months ago and I know what decorations I need. I am very organized. My Dad is always my gopher in the kitchen when I come over to cook all day. The other day on Good Morning America I heard them advertise about Breakfast For Mom With Emeril. On the computer I went and emailed my request for him to come. I told him my mom loves blueberries.

I also reminded him that he sent me an autographed cookbook when I received the Melissa Riggio Voices Award in 2010. I hope he also remembers that I sent him back my autographed picture. I told him that I will help him cook the breakfast. I love to cook and I am very good at it. I take cooking classes and I have a chef's jacket and hat. After I received the award I asked my mom to take me to the Culinary Institute to sign up for classes. The counselor took me and my mom around to the classes that just started. I decided I needed to take more classes locally before going to the Institute. The counselor was very supportive and told me she would wait and then she said "I am sure I will see you soon." She also said they recently placed a student who was blind in a job at a local restaurant. I know they will find me a job too.

I have written my own cookbook which I have dedicated to my mom who taught me so much about cooking. She is the best cook ever. All of my recipes are simple, healthy and yummy. My next dream is to be on the Food Network to show everyone that people with Down syndrome are great cooks too.

I Am Part of Something Big

Jay Nothnagle, Cohasset, MA

Our small town sponsors a volunteer project every summer where 4-5 busloads of teens and adults travel to Appalachia to help with home repairs in some of the poorest counties in the United States. In 1995, a family friend came home from that trip at the same time I was returning from competing in the Special Olympics World Games in Powerlifting, where I had dead lifted 290 pounds. Our friend said, "We need you at Appalachia Service Project. Most of these high school students cannot lift a bundle of roofing shingles, and you can!"

The next spring I signed up to go as a CIT (Counselor in Training) since I was out of high school. When I make the trip next, it will be my thirteenth year working in Appalachia! I have been to many different counties in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. I serve as assistant leader of a workgroup of 5 teens and 2 adults. Ten of these workgroups make up a Center. I have dug trenches, painted rooms, insulated under a trailer, nailed siding to a house, helped to build wheelchair ramps, pulled nails from used building materials, and played with little children.

We ride in buses for two days to get to Appalachia (and then vans down there), and two more days coming back on the buses. I sleep on a small cot in a gymnasium with 50 other men. The temperature is usually in the 90's. We eat lots of grits, beans, and peanut butter and jelly, but we do get to enjoy Dairy Queen in the evening. I give up a week of vacation, and raise more than $600 every year to support our effort.

Some might ask "Why do I go?" It's great to help those less fortunate, and also fun to see another part of our country so different from where I live. Over the years, I have made lots of good friends from my town, and I know I have helped many teens understand people with intellectual disabilities a little better. One year we had an ASP Center staff person who was the uncle of a newborn baby with Down syndrome. He was astounded and so encouraged by seeing what I could do. Also I know that every year we are helping another family have a "warmer, safer, drier" (ASP motto) place to live. After my first trip, my group leader said to my mom, "I always thought we needed to help people like Jay. This week I realized just how much he can contribute." We young adults with Down syndrome do have much to contribute, and volunteering is an excellent way to give to others and to educate people about our abilities.

Awareness & Advocacy for Anders

Kara Jones, West Fargo, ND

In honor of my son, Anders, age 4, and in honor of World Down Syndrome Day, our family celebrated by doing the following on 3/21:

Anders sported a bright yellow "3:21" NDSS t-shirt at daycare.

I ordered "Taking Down Syndrome to School" and send each of his classmates home with a copy and note explaining the significance of the day.

Our YMCA daycare director posted NDSS posters with facts about Down syndrome at five center sites in our town and she coordinated a fundraising effort to support our local Down syndrome group, "Up With Downs."

Our local news station interviewed the YMCA director, me and even Anders! The story showcases the importance of this day and that kids with Down syndrome are "More Alike than Different!"

Blue and Yellow Popcorn!

Maria Neumann, Pocatello, ID

We are going to celebrate my four year old daughter MaKenna's World Down Syndrome Day by watching an inspirational movie. I ordered the Hallmark movie, "A Smile as Big as the Moon" and our family will be watching the movie, for the first time, during the week of World Down Syndrome Day. One of MaKenna's favorite foods is popcorn, so we will be sure to have plenty of that during the showing.

During the day, I am going to send blue and yellow colored popcorn, raspberry lemonade flavor, from our local Popcorn Shop to my daughter's preschool class and to my son's first grade class. The bags of popcorn will each have a tag stating the importance of World Down Syndrome Day. The night of World Down Syndrome Day we will be going to our church's AWANA bible training group. I will sharing popcorn bags with my daughter's bible training class that night and letting them know the importance of the day.

World Traveler

Tony Piontek, New Iberia, LA

My 35 years on this Earth have been filled with travel, and I can't wait to share this with you.

To begin, I was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico and went to school in English and Spanish in interesting places like Coqui and Central Aguirre. I also made many road trips for three years over two mountain ranges to San Juan and Ponce for chemotherapy and radiation for my leukemia. My favorite Puerto Rican memory is catching coconuts from the trees my brother John climbed so we could make coconut cups and chips.

When my brothers David and Joe graduated from the Naval Academy, we traveled to Annapolis, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The military parades were the thing for me. We then spent time in Chicago before permanently moving to Louisiana, the world's most famous spot for Cajun food. The winter in Chicago gave me the chance to do tobogganing and cross country skiing.

In New Iberia, in Boy Scouting during two summers, I trekked, did caving, blacksmithing, rock climbing, repelling and making real horse shoes at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. There were also summer camping trips with my Troop at Mt.Bayou, Tunica Hills and Sam Houston, Texas.

With Special Olympics, I officiated at the Summer International Games, New Heaven, Connecticut as an Aquatics Stroke & Turn and Timer Judge in the Athletes As Officials Program. As an athlete swimmer, I competed at the Summer International Games in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. I connected with people from all over the world!

Self-Advocacy started new travels for me like to the International People 1st Conference in Alaska and the National Down Syndrome Congress Conventions in Boston and Sacramento. I had a great challenge giving my Nomination Speech for the NDSC Board and giving a presentation on the Discussion Panel.

A few years ago, the Piontek family had a cruise to Bermuda. All my Aunts, Uncles, and cousins in one place for great togetherness!

I have a big family with brothers and sisters living in many wonderful cities and countries that makes traveling special. We visited with Joe in Germany and Austria, and later twice in Rome. We could walk from his apartment to the Vatican for daily Mass and stop for gelato when it was hot. From Italy, we even made a side trip to Poland and rented an old berry farm for a week. Breakfasts were fresh raspberries on pancakes, of course. This year my brother, Daniel, made his perpetual religious vows and we traveled and stayed in ancient Monasteries in Southern France and Corsica for that.

Back in the U.S., I have a sister, Jenny, in Arkansas, David in San Diego, John in Miami, and a sister, Christine, right here in New Iberia with me. That all makes for some tripping around. And now my brother, Joe, lives in Peru. Maybe that's another trip. Here I come, Machu Picchu.

Your Self-Advocate friend.

My Two Children

Mary Finnegan-Rosselli, Worcester, MA

Two people I am writing about are my children, my twin son and daughter, who were born on October 17, in 2001. For sure I feel this is "My Great Story," because I am so blessed to be the Mom of three children, two of them with Down syndrome! In addition to being with Down syndrome, Sean and Marion each have the additional diagnosis of Autism. Whenever I take the time to reflect on my life, I feel I want to share it with the world. Why? Because each day is filled with miracles, yes, little miracles.

Many times, my days are so action packed I don't take the time to write them down, and really, really celebrate all the amazing accomplishments that occur each day. I am totally grateful to do just that with you, take time and share a little bit of heaven with you I am blessed to be able to home school Sean and Marion, because I am able to witness how my own kids dare to stretch themselves, to reach beyond their comfort zones, because we believe they can , with each request we make of them in our special home program. When I say we, I mean me, my husband Nunzio, my older son Nuccio, my PCA's (Personal Care Attendants ) my family, my volunteers in the home-based, child centered program we run, the Son-Rise Program, and my Home Health Aides.

Just this week, my daughter Marion, who is mostly non-verbal, took such awesome, wonderful joy in celebrating with my husband and me that she went pee on the potty, by herself, right before going to bed! She cheered with us so enthusiastically, yelling 'yea!' for herself and for us, (we've been training for a few years now). Marion smiled a huge smile! We clapped and cheered and wore the party hats to celebrate Marion's accomplishment. Marion has been going to the bathhroom before bed now for the last two weeks!!

Just this week our son Sean, who is also considered to be non-verbal, sang with such happiness and joy "Hark the herald Angels Sing", and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with us. But I want to tell about how Sean, after receiving a wooden xylophone for Christmas, began to play it, and sing "Jingle Bells" while hitting the appropriate notes on the xylophone with the wooden stick. We have it on video, it was so wonderful to see!

So many miracles, every day, I am grateful for my kids - they are showing me how to enjoy life by being daring to attempt what we invite them to do whether it be in looking at us and giving us eye contact, or deciding to use their voices to tell us want they want. Juice, pancakes, eggs, chips, horsey ride, tickles, or throwing the ball with us, wearing clothes, giving a kiss, pouring their own cereal and milk in a bowl, etc, and wanting to celebrate wholeheartedly each of their accomplishments!

My Son, My Hero

Kelli Forrester, Gainesville, GA

My son, Troy, is one of my heroes. Troy is 2 1/2 years old, he has Trisomy 21 & was born with a complete AV canal defect. He went into CHF when he was 2 weeks old. Troy had his heart defect repaired just one day before he turned 5 months old. He was a brave little boy & came through the surgery with flying colors.

Then, just a few days shy of turning 7 months old, he began acting ill. We took him to the ER at CHOA. He crashed around 6 a.m. & had to be put on life support. We were told that he had a severe tear in his mitral valve & would need emergency OHS to repair the tear, but he had to be stabilized first. He wasn't oxygenating well on the ventilator, so they put him on an oscillator... he was finally stable enough for surgery, so he was scheduled for 7 a.m. the following day.

After the surgery, we were advised that both his tricuspid & mitral valves were completely rottened from infective endocarditis. The doctor was not hopeful that Troy would survive. Boy was he wrong! He came home 9 days later with a PICC line for 6 additional weeks in order to receive 2 seperate antibiotics to clear the infection. He was doing well until December of last year. He went into heart failure due to the stenosis in his tricuspid valve...he has too much scar tissue from the surgeries. He had tricuspid valvuloplasty at 23 months old. The doctors think he'll need to have his tricuspid valve replaced, but we're trying to hold off as long as we can.

After he's endured all of this, he's still the most wonderful little boy in the world. He's always smiling & blowing kisses to everyone. He's doing remarkably well. He began walking at 25 months, he's talking (can say over 50 words), he can point to all of his body parts & he can tell you what sound almost every animal makes. He's learning his ABC's, colors, shapes & loves to sing. He has blessed our family beyond measure & I wouldn't change one thing about my tough, intelligent little boy. He spreads love & cheer eveywhere he goes...his smile & laugh are so infectious!

She Shoots, She Scores!

Eileen Hitzeman, Springfield, OH

Rebekah stands nervously at the free throw line. A hush falls over the gym. She shoots, she scores! The whole place erupts in applause and cheers. The opposing team's fans give her a standing ovation. A woman running a video camera is heard screaming (that would be me, Rebekah's mom). This is not about Rebekah making the shot; this is about a giant step forward in her acceptance and inclusion in her community.

This was Rebekah's first year at Greenon High School. She has been fully included in her community school and became manager of the women's basketball team. This journey began when Rebekah's friend Whitney asked the head coach if Rebekah could be manager of the team. However, manager was not enough for the coach so he approached us with the idea that Rebekah would play in the last home game of the season.

Like a pebble dropped into the water the ripples of that night continued out from the gym to the opposing team and their coach; to the student body and staff of Greenon High School; to other schools in our district; then on to the local newspaper and radio station. We posted the video on YouTube and heard from people all over the country. It was a magical night, the culmination of many years of hopes and expectations. Rebekah has gone from a tiny baby whose survival was questionable to a healthy, active high school student; from a child who did not walk independently until she was three to a Special Olympian and student athlete; from a child whose initial test scores cast doubt on her ability to learn to being on the honor roll and receiving an academic letter her freshman year in high school.

As she begins her sophomore year, we look forward to this year and what it will bring. She shoots, she scores each day with the joy she brings to those around her and the love she gives to all.

Sierra's Smile

Ann Canales, Abilene, TX

Before Sierra was born, we had no idea that she would have Down syndrome. It was quite a shock and adjustment to accept and realize the joy she would bring to our lives. My husband, Pedro, was strong and wonderfully supportive as I adjusted to this new, unimagined life. Our faith in Christ was strong, but I believe beginning this journey of raising a baby with Down syndrome made my faith even stronger as I grew to realize that I had been given a rare gift. Our family and church family stepped up and carried us through the more difficult times. And a local support group called Upside Down provided us with insight into the beauty within our baby girl.

Though Sierra was healthy enough to come home from the hospital soon after birth, she had an ASD and VSD that did not spontaneously close. At 3 ½ months old, she underwent open-heart surgery. As any parent can imagine, this was difficult. Yet again, our families, church family, colleagues, and even strangers from distant towns lifted baby Sierra (and us) up in prayer to our Lord. Our pastor visited with us while we waited for her in surgery (over two hours away from home). Her surgery was successful and now she is an unstoppable 16-month-old who wants to be everywhere and do everything that her big sister is doing.

Though she has suffered other medical complications of Down syndrome, mostly repeated ear infections, sinus infections, and some gastrointestinal problems; she has never ceased to bring joy to those around her. She smiles and laughs and the room lights up. Through ECI, she does physical therapy and speech therapy and has a developmental coordinator who helps to evaluate progress and organize everything. She is learning to sign, to stand, to walk, and to self-feed.

I say all this to emphasize that babies with Down syndrome are beautiful babies. They may take a little longer to learn to do things, but they will learn to do things when given the love and attention they need. I wouldn't change beautiful little Sierra. I wouldn't advise anyone expecting a baby with Down syndrome to do anything different with the pregnancy I would urge them to prepare to love their precious baby as they would any other. There may be more complications than most, but the Lord can guide you through the tough spots and reveal wonderful things with each day.

My husband and I are blessed to be raising two wonderful little girls. Both have challenges, more than most, but they will lift any spirit with their outgoing and loving personalities. They undeniably adore each other. I wouldn't change a thing. I only hope to remember these wonderful times in the years to come.

A Smile as Big as the Moon

Jeannine Cleary, Glencoe, IL

Peter ten Brink, a nineteen year old teen with Down syndrome will played one of the main roles in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, "A Smile as Big as the Moon." The movie is based on a true story and aired on ABC on January 29, 2012. Peter plays the role of Ben Schmidt, a high school student with Down syndrome who dreams of becoming an astronaut.

Peter has been acting since he was eight years old in a local theatre company called Special Gifts theatre. He has played many different roles such as Winthrop in the "Music Man" and the Prince in "Cinderella." Last year he played the lead role in a short film called "By Any Other Name," Directed by Dave Midell of Play On Productions. This short film was recently featured at the Sprout film Festival in New York.

Peter heard about the auditions for "A Smile as Big as the Moon" through the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, which keeps a file of actors with Down syndrome. Peter and his acting coach, Sarah Graber submitted the audition tape right before Labor Day of 2010. It was soon after Labor Day that Peter was asked to audition in person in Wilmington, North Carolina. Peter found out he got the part the evening of his audition for the role and was told he needed to be back in Wilmington the next week for five weeks of filming. Needless to say, the ten hour working days and the demands of being on and off the set all day were a new challenge for Peter. Peter did rise to the challenge but not without a few "bumps in the road" along the way. All in all, Peter would do it again because he says "acting is my passion and my dream." Peter has taught all of us that with determination, focus, passion, talent and yes, a little luck, anything can happen and you can realize your dreams.

Our Daughter the Powerlifter

Vivian Rinaldo, Whites Creek, TN

My 37-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome was born at a time when the laws mandating education for the intellectually disabled hadn't even been passed yet. Now she is a well-adjusted, self-sufficient, socially integrated adult with many friends who participates in a variety of activities with both disabled and typically developing peers and others. She has been a Special Olympics athlete, a Best Buddy with a college student, an employee of various companies, a volunteer for our local Down Syndrome Association, a visitor to our state capitol, and a light that we, her parents, follow with amazement and pride.

Three years ago, she decided that instead of basketball, she wanted to participate in powerlifting for Special Olympics. This came out of nowhere, because she is petite and very much a "girly-girl." We were skeptical at first, (partly because she is only five feet tall and tends to be a bit of a couch potato) but as she became more insistent, we began to understand that she was really serious about this endeavor.

We bought her a set of weights, and her dad began training her. She also received training and encouragement from the local Parks and Recreation Department Disabilities Program. The first year she competed, there were only two or three other women in the powerlifting competition; she brought home three gold medals in her weight class. She was hooked.She has received gold medals each of the years she has completed, and her enthusiasm for the sport of powerlifting has not waned. We are so proud of her and what she has accomplished, and she is very proud of herself. Down syndrome is only a description of chromosomes, not a disease, illness, or affliction. Our daughter is living proof that no matter what your obstacles are, they can be overcome.

Alex's Grace

Ricci Willis, Redding, CA

Alex was desired, waited for, sought after, and chosen by her family. She was adopted and brought home on her 10th day of life. I named my new baby sister, Alexandria Grace. And oh yes, she has Down syndrome.

She grew up the youngest of 5 children, smiling and singing her way to everyone's hearts. God's love for us all, vividly shining through this gorgeous girl. She was at the very least, an active child, and as she grew into a beautiful young lady, she used that energy in sports and acting. She excels in basketball, plays in Special Olympics, and performs in several theatrical productions. These hobbies have become her passion. She is always happy, always smiling, always optimistic, in everything she does. But at the heart of it all, her first love is her family. Alex adores her family. Mom: her staple, her stronghold, that person in her life that holds everything together. And Dad: her best bud, her fellow basketball enthusiast, her friend. Brothers and sisters: her comrades, her pals, always hanging out together and having fun. Her love for her family is tremendous, surpassing all ordinary affection, her life is consumed by the warmth she gives and receives for her family members.

But, in 2008, Alex's life got turned upside down when our mom had a debilitating stroke that left her left side completely paralyzed. Her stronghold was gone. Mom needed to be cared for now, so Alex learned to help. She and Dad held everything together, collectively caring for Mom and the house. And they went on, the three of them, enjoying life, supporting each other in love. Then, a year later, Dad passed away. Alex lost her beloved buddy. She wept, smiled through it and said, "he's in no more pain now." She always looks for good.

But, in mourning for Dad, decisions needed to be made. Who would care for Mom and Alex? Her precious family talked about group homes, nursing homes...independence would be lost. But Alex's strength and optimism made it all apparent what was to be done. Alex knew what God had planned for her. God had designed her to not only give and receive great love throughout her life but to give her mom a stronghold. It was Alex's turn to be the one to hold everything together. Her cheerful, courageous attitude was everything she and Mom needed to prove independence was possible for both of them. And she succeeded. They are both thriving together now, living independently together. They care physically and emotionally for each other, serving each other in love.

Alex blesses my family's life in so many ways, her cheerful attitude is overwhelmingly enriching. But I know now, that Alex finds her self enrichment in serving others. She is as happy now as she's ever been. She finds fullness in service. She loves to be needed and finds joy in it. She is the epitome of her name: Alexandria GRACE.

Eyes Wide Open

Maria Reyes, Fort Smith, AR

I was wearing a green dress that day, sitting at my desk at work, it was a slow day; and then the telephone rang. When I answered the phone I recognized my OB's voice and he said "Maria, your results are back from your blood work and your AFP results show a slightly higher risk of you having a child with Down syndrome." My heart stopped, I went blank and whatever else he said was a blur. I asked for permission to leave work and rushed home, crying hysterically. What did this mean? I thought to myself. Is it my fault? Did I do something wrong? Once I got home my husband and I were in shock, we did not know what to do. What could we do? The rest is history.

After a series of monthly visits to the geneticist and regular OB visits the rest of my pregnancy was great and then came the day 09/08/2000, the day Christopher was born. His eyes were wide open! Christopher has made me find a place within myself I did not know existed. I was very worried in the beginning what would be of us and Christopher; luckily along the line we have made great relationships with his doctors, teachers and therapists. Christopher has superseded all of my expectations. The first three years of Christopher's life were very difficult and scary. He suffered many upper respiratory infections and has had three surgeries. Sometimes I am amazed at his tolerance on life.

Christopher is now 11 years old and boy is he a busy body. He is a stout, music loving, hip hop dancing cowboy. He loves music and dance and when I say "love" I mean it. I am so proud of his accomplishments through all these years. He has participated in the Special Olympics and won 2 silver medals. Christopher is a character; he has a charming personality and a smile that will melt you. He makes me forget how bad my day is or what deadlines I need to meet. I believe our family is truly blessed to have Christopher. He has the love of his father and I and his two sisters. We are fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family that are really involved in his accomplishments. I know for a fact this school year he has won the hearts of his classmates. His teacher and classroom aides always joke how he is "babied" by his peers and boy does Christopher milk it.

I work very close with the public and whenever I see a child with Down syndrome I tell them they are very fortunate in having such a blessed gift from God. A child with a disability is not a burden but a challenge. Not so much for the child but for the caregiver, how much can you help this child achieve. They have no limit; all you can do is try!

My Sister and Her Movies

Keith DeLong, Columbus, OH

If there is one thing that my sister Samantha can do, it is make you smile. Whether she is saying something funny, doing something amusing, or just laughing- you can't help but smile when you are around her. There have been times in my life that have been hard, but with Samantha around I forget all the bad things and focus on the joy and laughter that she brings. It's as if she has a sixth sense of knowing the precise moment to give you a warm smile, a big laugh, or the perfect hug.

One of Samantha's favorite things to do is go to the movies. She will often go to the theaters twice a week and see the latest release. She has this incredible memory for actors, movies, movie characters, and movie lines. She can quote them and even relate the movies to every day situations. One of the most entertaining parts of her movie hobby is her rating system. After going to the theater with her and asking how the movie was, Samantha will rate the movie based upon it's language and graphic content. "Samantha did you like the movie?" To which she replies, "no cussing, no sex" in a positive tone indicating it was good. Sometimes the reply is not as positive like "two cuss words and a finger." Her rating system is well-known with our family and friends, and often people will call her to get the rating on the latest movie.

Samantha is 25 years old now and has had us all wrapped around her finger since she was born on Christmas Day in 1987. It wasn't the Christmas present I wanted that year, but I wouldn't trade it for the world.

To learn more about Samantha's rating system and her go to www.twocusswordsandafinger.blogspot.com.

A Recipe of Love

Linda Hougland, Lexington, KY

Christmas 2007 was fast approaching and baking and decorating were in full swing. Gingerbread babies are everyone's favorites and I always take pride in having people say how good they are and how attractive they look. I have gathered the needed ingredients and have storage containers assembled.

A phone call changes my plans. Our daughter, Tonya is in labor and heading for the hospital. My husband and I pick up Eli, our grandson and soon to be big brother, from day care and take him home to await news from the hospital. The call comes. Baby Will is here and everyone appears to be fine.

Jim, Eli and I head for the hospital the next morning anxious to meet baby Will. We go to Tonya's room and she is holding Will. She puts out her arms to hug Eli and talks softly with him. Finally it is my turn to hold my grandson. He is beautiful and I walk with him to the window so I can take in every detail of his tiny face. I look into Will's beautiful, sparkling eyes and I know that I love him and everything about him.

As I stand holding Will and trying to decide whose eyes, nose, hair he has, I hear words that hurt my heart. Tonya says, "Mom, Will has Down syndrome." How can this be? How can this beautiful little boy have anything so dreadful? How can I make this go away and take away the hurt and fear I see in my child's face? I look at Will again, and I know that we will nurture and celebrate his differences. He is Will and he is beautiful.

I had promised to bake gingerbread babies and so I go home to assemble the ingredients and follow the recipe I have used for over two decades. The dough goes into the refrigerator to be chilled and I can think only of Will.

I take the chilled dough from the refrigerator and begin to cut out the gingerbread babies. Hard as I try to make them exactly alike each one is a little different.

As I move them from cookie sheet to countertop, some need more time before they can be moved without breaking. Others have arms or legs that have become misshapen as they baked. As I store them in containers, I notice that no two are alike. Not one of them is perfect, but they are all gingerbread babies.

Christmas 2010 is almost here and our Will will soon be three years old. We are amazed by his many accomplishments. He loves people and they are drawn to his smile and his openness. He has taught us the joy of living. It is time to bake gingerbread babies again and as I assemble the ingredients and prepare the dough, I know that I cannot make perfect gingerbread babies, but I can appreciate how every one of them is different but beautiful.

Inclusion at its Best

Lori Christopher, Derby Line, VT

I would like to introduce you to my daughter, Alyssa. I remember the day she came into my life like it was yesterday. It was one of the most wonderful days of my life. Alyssa was born with Trisomy 21, Down syndrome. The only thing that came to mind was, I studied Special Ed. for a reason. I went through the motions of being sad, but that was it. I was happy because she was the most beautiful, little girl a mom could wish for.

Alyssa has an older sister, and two younger brothers. She is very family oriented and loves to get together to celebrate. Her favorite holiday is Halloween. She spent time with her older sister baking cookies for her classmates. Alyssa is now 17, and has been very successful throughout her school years. Her personality is so warm, caring, loving, but still has a sense of humor that has gotten her through her school years. She has an awesome family support system but her classmates and friends as well as community members are very much a part of her life. She has volunteered at senior meals and is now volunteering at the Animal Frontier Society. When we are out shopping or eating, everyone we come across says hi to her. I have to ask her who the person or people are. She has attended school dances and other community activities and blends in with the rest of the students. She even walks through the school halls telling the young men to call her or text her. Her communication is great especially when she shrieks, "OMG!!" or "LOL".

She is just like you and me and she reminds me of this every day. I do wish I had one trait that Alyssa has, and that is to not let anything bother me and be able to be myself without worrying about what others think! I am learning though and she has been an excellent teacher in this area. She is a strong advocate for herself and has become quite the independent young lady. Nothing has changed in our household since Alyssa has come into our lives and nothing ever will. We are a family with different abilities and are stronger for it. Alyssa is our sunshine throughout the year and I know that I will never have a cloudy day again!

My New Kitten

Mindie Crutcher, Normal, IL

Daisy is my new kitten. She is gray with blonde fur. She is a year old. She has yellow eyes and a long tail. She is playful and she likes to give kisses. I got her last Christmas. I got her from the Humane Society and the Humane Society told me to take care of Daisy. I am raising her on my own. She is 4 pounds and she is eating lots of cat food. I have been doing her litter box and giving her pounce treats. She likes to play with paper all the time and animals. Daisy sleeps in her pillow cushion in my exercise room.

I like being a good mother to Daisy. She is my baby girl. Daisy is my responsibility to take care of and to raise her on my own. She is very lonely when I leave for school. When I am in school my Dad takes care of Daisy for me. When my family goes on Hawaiian vacations one of my Dad's interns, Stephen, takes care of Daisy.

Daisy is making me laugh all the time. I like to laugh when she plays with paper and takes it downstairs and into the dining room and the kitchen. Sometimes she takes it to the living room and all around the house and that cracks me up!

She loves her mother more than anything. I love her with all my heart. I am glad that she is a part of my family now and she has a new home with her new family. Our family includes just Mom, Dad, myself, and Daisy.

Micah

Matt Burke, Sandwich, MA

Can't. Won't. Should not. Never. Failure. These are words that are as foreign to Micah Perry as the surface of the moon might be to you or I. Micah, who is in his early 20's, hails from Brewster, Massachusetts, and in many ways is like you or I. He worships Elvis, has impeccable style, loves girls, dancing, sports, and video games. But he is better than you or I, this I assure you.

Micah was born with Down syndrome. At the time, his mother was discouraged from keeping him because as he was considered "imperfect." Micah was also born with a heart defect, and was given a very slim chance of survival. Through small miracles and a loving family, Micah not only survived, but thrived.

I first met Micah a few years ago, while I was covering his high school graduation for the Cape Cod Times. I wandered through the crowd and found that many people did not have children there, but were there to see him. Old teachers, bus drivers, people he had not seen in many years. His inner light had stuck with them and they needed to come out and see him on HIS day.

I was further impressed by Micah getting the largest ovation, he was awarded the scholarship to college that escaped even me when I graduated. He started a scholarship of his own on this day, with his own money, to award future generations of special needs students. He was a member of the National Honor Society, and was the reigning homecoming king. Through interviews, I found out that he saved his money from working at Dunkin Donuts, to purchase turkeys for the less fortunate on Thanksgiving.

After witnessing this impressive young man, I wanted to know more. So, after his mother contacted me about my story, I set up an interview.This next story appeared on the front page and afterwards, Micah and I stayed in touch, going to movies, bowling, talking about girls, listening to music, and talking about his college school work.

Despite leaving the paper soon after, I would go on to make a short film about Micah. We premiered it at his school to a couple hundred people. Again, Micah found himself on the front page of several newspapers. Now, he was a full-blown star, noticed everywhere he went.Throughout his life, Micah has been told that because he has Down syndrome, he would probably not be able to do the things that most kids do, meet a hero of his, Tom Brady, go to college, be a movie star, hold a real job. The list could go on forever. But he has done them all and then some.

Micah is one of the most selfless people I know in a selfish world. His love of others and compassion will be with me forever. He also taught me to go for what you want, that anything is possible, and to dance like nobody is watching.

Table for Ten Dinner Party

Mary Erickson, Alameda, CA

It all started with the movie Julie and Julia. Marissa turned to me and asked if she could cook dinner and have all her friends over for a dinner party. We picked our menu and sent out an email invitation to all her friends that she has made over the years. Some are from special Olympics, some from school and social groups. The first 10 to R.S.V.P have a spot at the table. No parents are allowed. This is a chance for Marissa and her friends to socialize in a casual and informal setting. All they have to bring is drinks to serve four people and Marissa and I do the rest! Marissa loves to help cook but really does her best setting the table and decorating the house. It has turned out to be a monthly event full of great food, friendship and fun. We always try to include a dessert that all her friends can participate in making. Fruit smoothies and Ice cream sundaes are always popular.

We have been hosting dinner parties for over a year now and the friendship and bond that the young adults have formed has been amazing and such a true joy to watch grow and develop. Often at the dinner table they will share hopes and dreams, struggles they have had and kind words are always offered as support. True bonds are formed. Whenever Marissa and I run into her friends they always ask when the next party will be and whats for dinner? Maybe your son or daughter would like to start a Dinner Club too. It is really easy and the rewards are well worth the effort!

Special in a Different Way

Sandhya Sharma, Wellesley, MA

This is a tribute to people with Down syndrome from the perspective of my eleven-year-old niece. My son Kunal has created an indelible impression on my niece Anisha in her formative years. In this story, she recounts her positive experiences with her cousin:

As a child, the concept was impossible for me to grasp. What could possibly be wrong with Kunal? When I was told he was "special," I shrugged, and simply replied, "Of course he is, Kunal is the nicest person on earth. How could he ever be the same as everybody else?"Kunal is my cousin with Down syndrome, I could not fathom why it was called Down syndrome because in my mind, Down syndrome had a negative connotation and Kunal does not have a negative bone in his body.

My cousin Kunal and I live in close proximity and practically see each other every week. For the longest time I was the only girl in our "family parties", I was also the youngest. Whenever the boys decided to watch a gory movie or television show, I followed them around. The blood and guts terrified me. However, I kept watching, just so I could hang out with the "big kids."

Nightmares were inevitable, but Kunal would always be there for me, I can still visualize him sitting on the edge of my bed reassuring me. I remember him lulling me to sleep with his outrageous stories about singing monkeys and green lions. While most children fall asleep to music, I was comforted by the sound of his smooth, gentle voice. I never thought about it before, because it seemed natural. Now I realize how much he cared about me.

Another memorable moment occurred recently, over the winter break this year. We were at my cousin's wedding; everyone at the wedding danced like there was no tomorrow. Kunal danced like his musical idols, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, only with extra flair. He has and always will retain the title of best dancer and entertainer in our family. He danced throwing caution to the wind, enjoying the deserved attention, his eyebrows raised in his trademark smile. All our cousins circled him, cheering him on. All of a sudden, I felt a nudge; Kunal singled me out from the other excited cheerers, dragged me into his little circle, insisting I share the limelight with him. It dawned on me later, that Kunal had the presence of mind to notice me in the crowd and chose to share his happiness with me. I danced with him, sharing his joy. To be honest, the thing that made me happiest was the fact that I was with him.

If there is one thing I know about Kunal, I know he is special. Not because of his extra chromosome, but because of his extra love, thoughtfulness and his great sense of humor that set him apart. Kunal is one of a kind, no matter what others think, he is perfect just the way he is.

Princess to a Queen

Melissa Tanner, Kankakee, IL

Every girl has a dream of some day becoming their high school's prom queen. Ashley Tanner, my younger sister, was no different. She always knew that there was something special about her, but she never let it get in her way, she just kept reaching for her dreams. She is such a loving and cheerful person, and people just love to be around her. Last year, the cheerleader squad asked her to be the captain for a night, and they did a half time show to Hannah Montana's song. She had made so many friends at Herscher High over the last 5 years, and she enjoyed going to the dances and getting dressed up like a princess. And since it was her Senior prom, this dance was no different.

Ashley was sitting in class one day, and the announcer announced over the intercom that the prom court was selected for that year. Ashley was completely shocked when her name was called. She came running off the bus that day, so excited to tell everyone that she had so many friends that voted her to be on court. We went through the exciting process of picking out the perfect hot pink, princess dress. I asked Ashley the night before the dance if she hoped she would be queen, and she said, "I'm happy to be a prom princess, I don't need to be queen."

The next day, she got all dressed up, took hundreds of pictures, and went to dinner before the dance with two friends from her class. They went into the dance room, and my family waited until coronation time for the court. When it was finally time to go in, everyone at the dance lined up on the dance floor, and the prom court was ushered to the front of the stage. She was grinning from ear to ear, so proud to be up there with fellow classmates that had treated her like their best friend for the last few years. The announcer then said, "Your 2011 Prom Queen is Ashley Tanner!" She was so shocked and so excited, because she never thought that she'd be the queen, not just a princess.

I think her favorite part of the night was getting to dance with the prom king, and all of the other students were cheering and hovering around her for the rest of the night. Little did we know, until the end of the night, that the vote was unanimous by every student in the high school. I'm so proud of my sister to be named prom queen. But I'm even more proud of the fact that she won because she impacted that many people through her five years in high school.

Anya Solis

Patty Olloqui, Miami, FL

I want to share a great story about a courageous twenty-four year old young lady, named Anya Solis, who has Down syndrome.

I met Anya on Halloween in 1987. Anya and her mother knocked on my front door for a treat. Anya was about three feet tall. I will never forget the way she pushed her walker through the crowds to get her candy. Her mother and I instantly became best friends. We were inseparable- we shared two beautiful girls with Down syndrome. Anya learned to walk at the age of four and went to early schooling.

Her mother had a big influence in Anya's life. She taught her to read, write and become independent at a very early age. At the age of five, her mother enrolled her in a dance studio she learned to dance ballet, jazz, tap and hip hop. Anya also became a Girl Scout of America.

At the age of fourteen, Anya lost her mother to breast cancer. She went to live with her grandparents and her brother. For the past ten years she has become a very independent young lady. She looks up to her brother Helmuth... he has become both mother and father for her.

Anya has a very important friend in her life. They met at the age of three; my daughter Dominique. They have shared many special moments and are now growing together like sisters. Anya has been an inspiration for me. Despite her disability, she has managed to do everything and anything. She manages her daily chores and continues to excel in school with minimum adult supervision. Anya enjoys the movies. She is a great bowler. She goes to school at an adult center. She enjoys being a cheerleader, loves to sing in the talent show, and models in the schools fashion show. She's been to the Hillary Duff and Britney Spears concerts.

Anya is a Global messenger for the Special Olympics. She competes in swimming and soccer. She has earned three gold medals and one silver. One day she hopes to have a boyfriend, get married and have a family. I'm honored to have met this beautiful young lady. Her disability has not impaired her ability to function in today's society.

A Green Light to Driving

Taffy & Jeff Nothnagle, Cohasset, MA

When our son Jay turned 16, he began asking about getting his driver's license. We had learned early on that Jay was a very determined individual, and that if he said he wanted to do something, we'd better find a safe way to make it happen. We started with a Driver's Ed course at his high school. Jay took the classes but not the exam, and that introduction to the idea seemed to be enough. Two years later, he decided to take the course again, hoping to get his learner's permit. We were encouraged by a story in the MDSC newsletter about a local woman who had earned her license.

Also, at age 18, Jay's neuro-psychological exam indicated that his judgment and problem-solving skills were at the level of a 15 to 16 year old (driving age for many teens). Jay hired a tutor to help him prepare for the permit test, and they worked on the book orally, because Jay's reading level is very low. After six months of studying, Jay passed the oral exam on his first try.

The next step was a driving evaluation at a local rehabilitation hospital, with a driving simulator which tested response times, visual acuity, physical abilities, as well as many of the rules of the road. This testing is most valuable, because someone besides the parent is making the judgment about capacity to drive. Jay passed with flying colors, and was ready to take the wheel. The Driver's Ed teacher at the high school was very willing to work with Jay. Jay took more than 25 hours of driving instruction, and drove an hour a day with one of us for six months. At twenty-one, he took the driving test, and passed, with no restriction except glasses.

What a huge step for all of us! It is not easy to let any of your children start driving, but even harder when your child has Down syndrome. Now that Jay has been driving for 16 years, we have no regrets that we facilitated his doing this. He owns a pickup truck, and driving gives him such independence. He drives to work, Special Olympics practices and social events. He is comfortable staying within a ten mile radius of home, and he does not drive others in his truck, as that would be distracting. There have been a few incidents " two speeding tickets, and two minor accidents " our other children had similar records, all while they were inexperienced.

I have worked with many young adults with Down syndrome. I truly believe that parents are the biggest roadblock to their getting a license. Many of these young adults are capable of driving. We are allowing many of our children to live independently, or to seek higher education. We need to give them the chance to prove that they can learn to drive. We really encourage you to at least consider this possibility for your person with Down syndrome.

Amazing Annie

John Clancy, Fairfield, CT

My name is John Clancy, and my sister, Annie, has Down syndrome. Annie is 14 years old, and will be starting high school this year. She is fully included in the classroom, listens to High School Musical CDs, and loves making new friends. So what makes her different from any other 14 year old girl? It's her exuberance, her joy and her love.

Annie has fought through so much in her young life to get to where she is today, but remains the happiest, most positive person I know. Even when she is having a bad day, a hug from her big brother is all she needs to turn it around. The room seems to light up when she walks in, and she knows and loves that she's the center of attention. Annie's love of life itself helps me see things in a more positive light. And she is eager to share this love. For example, whenever anyone at home is sick "Nurse Annie" rushes to the rescue. She loves to cheer people up, and her energy seems to be everlasting. Throughout the house you can often hear Annie signing along to her favorite songs, including "Build Me Up Buttercup" and "Livin On A Prayer", for hours at a time.

Anyone who knows someone with Down syndrome understands the struggles that come with it, but then they also understand all of the good things. Annie has been able to accomplish so much and inspire so many people in just 14 years. Parents Magazine published a two page story about Annie's upbringing two years ago. Facts including that Annie's birthplace is Singapore and that she's a TV star make her story all the more interesting. TV star? Well, not exactly, but she was featured in a Nickelodeon PSA about kids with Down syndrome and inclusion. Nickelodeon brought big TV cameras to the house and spent a whole day filming Annie. That's not everything though (I don't have enough space to tell you everything!), more recently Annie's artwork was featured on NDSS donation cards which she helped sell at the 2009 NDSS Women's Luncheon. These colorful cards will not only raise money for NDSS, but spread awareness of the beauty that comes with Down syndrome.

Annie has done so much already with her life, and my family and I are eager to see what she can do next. Her joy and smile touch everyone she meets, and I'm lucky enough to see her everyday. My Great Story is that my little sister has made me a happier and better person, and I know the world is a better place because of Annie.

Luke & Laughter

Linda Pedreira, Whitestone, NY

My first encounter with normalcy since my husband and I heard the unexpected diagnosis of Down syndrome from my son's doctor was Luke's sweet smile. Instead of the bleak scenario predicted, I discovered a child whose wisdom and grace colorfully filled my days with singing and laughter, two activities I believed I would never truly partake of again.

Our son was born in August of 1991 - at first, a perfect baby with a perfect Apgar score - until, five hours later, something went terribly wrong. While we knew that Luke had somehow lost the ability to breathe on his own, neither my husband nor myself were prepared to hear the ultimate diagnosis. Nor were we prepared to hear a series of abnormal responses from the series of professionals we encountered, from the geneticist who gently asked if we intended to give our son up for adoption, on through to the neurologist, who suggested we place him in a "better-equipped environment" before we had grown too attached to him. No one bothered to ask his name, and no one took the time to recognize that we had already fallen in love with Luke from the moment we had seen his beautiful face.

Determined to provide Luke with every opportunity, we enrolled him at a pre-school for special needs children when he was six weeks old. Doing so made me a stronger advocate for my child. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of such a place in the life of a parent... the flow of information, the interaction with other parents, and their positive support bring a new agenda into your life.

I used to be very impatient. My life was tied up in deadlines and competitions. Now, because I watched Luke create his own timeline, defying the odds by finally walking at the age of 5, and struggling to communicate via an elaborate pictorial system at the age of 6, I came to understand the beauty of taking things in slow motion.

We liked to play on the swings for hours, and listened to all kinds of music, from Barney to Bach, all day long. Instead of weakening me, those new perceptions strengthened me. I'm inevitably reminded of the children's story of the bear that lost her baby. Her despondence was life threatening until she was given a teddy bear. How she loved him! She sang and danced for him well past her prime because, you see, her baby never aged. And so, she never felt her age and continued to be youthful until well into her old age.

Luke has kept me younger, not because he does not grow up, but because he strives heroically to mature. He beckons me to run after him, dance with him, sing to him, read to him, and, finally, to respect him for whom he is, and who he will become. Luke is now almost 20, a handsome boy who cherishes his newfound independence, but who has never lost his ability to wonder.

Hannah Montana

Kristi Newbold, Bloomington, IL

On last Wednesday I went to the Hannah Montana concert and I went with my mom and my 2 best friends, Wendy and Kirsten. First, my mom and I went shopping. It was inside at the concert and she got me a Miley Cyrus key chain and a Miley Cyrus sweatshirt jacket. I also got a T-shirt with Miley Cyrus on it and a Miley Cyrus program. We went to the photo booth and I got my picture taken with Miley on stage and I pretended to use a pretend microphone by doing a pose. Kirsten got her picture taken with Miley on stage, too. We had a great time at the concert.

I think Miley sings really good and I love her music. I love the way she sings and I thought her singing was really beautiful. My favorite song she sings is called "See You Again." My Next favorite song she sings is called "GNO" (Girl's Night out). I have a New CD of Miley Cyrus called "The Time of Our Lives." My next favorite song is called "Party in the USA". Miley talked about her movie. It is called "The Last Song." When she sings "When I look at you" she is telling her fans about her new movie. She also sings "Kicking and Screaming". I remember when she sang her song called "Breakout" at her concert.

Another song is called "Simple song". I love the way she sings. She also sings "These four walls". I thought her song is beautiful. Her other song she sings called "Fly on the wall". It was a great song that Miley sings. Also she sings "Bottom of the ocean". That song was beautiful too. When Miley came back on stage again she sang "Let's Get Crazy".

That was my favorite song ever at the end of the concert. When Miley sang "The Climb" I was standing up with my best friend Kirsten. We were both singing. I remember Miley sang "Hoedown Throw down". I bet Miley did a great job with her singing at St. Louis. I really love supporting Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. It really means a lot to her since I got her letter in the mail that was in my bedroom at home.

Monica & David

Ali Codina, Miami, FL

Yesterday I spent the day with my cousin, Monica, and her husband, David. I'd been a bit consumed and stressed for the past few weeks, but after sharing a day with these two lovely people, the world seemed to melt away. Monica and David have a wonderful, contagious effect. It's not a childish, angelic innocence (words often used to describe adults with Down syndrome); but rather an ability to put life into perspective. Monica and David stress, mourn and hurt as we all do, and they sometimes annoy me, as I'm sure I can annoy them. But they also have a rare talent for living life in the present, a very Zen approach which so many people spend their lives seeking. EAT, PRAY, LOVE seems ridiculous compared to the intuitive, effortless way in which Monica and David live. Of course, even for a couple who is blissfully in love and enlightened, life can be tough; but the obstacles aren't their own. The outside world seems to be a bit behind in its embrace of anyone who is unique or different, and often judges a person with a disability as "less than" or lacking something. To me, Monica and David are two of the most complete and sophisticated individuals that I know, and I hope to learn to be more like them over time. In some small way through our film (MONICA & DAVID), we hope to contribute to the growing movement towards change, opportunity and full community inclusion for individuals with disabilities.

David's Great Story

Dennis Diehl, Rehoboth Beach, DE

When I first met David, I knew there was something special about him. He looked a little different, of course. It was apparent that he talks and learns differently than me, but right away I knew there was something special. I had met a man with Down syndrome many years before and had befriended him or, more likely, he had befriended me. I always thought there was something special about him, too.

Now that I was marrying David's sister, I would have the time to get to know him and learn more about him. He was already 46 years old. His mother was 84 and wheelchair bound. David and his mom shared the strongest bond I have ever seen between mother and child.

When David was born, little was known about Down syndrome. He was not diagnosed until he was two years old, but his mother knew he was special. When it was suggested he be institutionalized she said, "No!" She knew David was a blessing.

David lived with mom and his brother in Jacksonville, Florida. When we visited, I watched David dote over his aging mother and the rest of the family dote over David. This family understood what love was all about and at the center of it all was David. I saw how people felt good doing things for David. He has the innocence and tenderness of a child and the loyalty and commitment of a man. He is special.

I like to take David bowling and to buy new music and I love his stories. He tells the same stories over and over with the same enthusiasm every time. He calls everything that happened before today "yesterday," but I learned that some of the stories he told me happened 35 to 40 years ago. These were stories about family, friends, school and work.

Eighteen months before she finally passed at age 92, Mom was rushed to the hospital and the family was told she might not make it home to die. She came home, but was not ready to give up. David watched her constantly, not ready to let go.

Near the end, while we were visiting, I took David for the day to get him out of the house. We bowled a little and stopped to buy music. Mom had not been responsive all morning and when we returned, she was awake only long enough to eat.

That night we watched TV around her bed. She had not spoken in 24 hours when David gently snuggled in with her and said, "What are you thinking about, Mom?" She opened her eyes and replied, "You, baby." It was still weeks later before she finally let go.

Years before she passed, I promised her that David was welcome in our home and I would introduce him to our community in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

David's great story is the inspiration for the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk Buddy Walk®. In David's honor we created the Buddy Fest, a weekend of fun and inclusion for all who participate. In spite of his rock star status in Rehoboth Beach, David, at age 57, is still just David.

Cause for Celebration

Nick and Renee Vekiarides, Natick, MA

We have a beautiful 7 year old daughter, Anna, who has Down syndrome. She is fully included in a first grade general education classroom. Her particular teacher hands out a homework packet at the beginning of each week. The expectation is that it is returned by Friday morning. Part of this homework, is to memorize a poem, illustrate it, and then to get up in front of the whole class every Friday to recite the poem. We weren't sure how this was going to play out with Anna, but as with everything, we were going to figure out a way to complete the homework as expected!

Thus we sat with Anna every night and worked on memorizing the poem. By that first Friday in September we were so happy that she had memorized it! We proudly emailed a video of Anna reciting the poem back to her teacher. She was thrilled!

Now it was time to recite the poem, one by one, the other children in the class got up and recited their poem. As Anna's turn came up, she froze. She is tentative by personality, so this wasn't entirely unexpected. The teacher in turn, took her into the hallway with two other peers and Anna recited the memorized poem to them. She continued down this path, for a number of months.

This was all cause for celebration, but an even greater moment for celebration came in January when Anna got up in front of the whole class, holding a good friend's hand, and recited the whole poem to the class. At this point she not only continues to recite her poem to the whole class, but does so excitedly! She continues to ask a friend to come up with her and hold her hand, her friends get so excited when she asks them! This has not only been a huge sense of accomplishment not only for her, but recognized by the whole class.

We love you Anna!

Sibling's Perspective

Coree Keenan, Roseville, CA

I get a little emotional and semi-private feeling about writing this post. I know that there are no expectations on me yet I fear that I should be saying something profound and read-worthy. I feel like I should gush over what Todd has taught me. How do I put that into words?

My little brother Todd is now 25 and he has Down syndrome. Todd and I never went to the same school partly because of our nine year age difference and partly because Todd was bused to county programs on other school sites. Therefore, I do not have stories of lunch lines, recesses, or bus rides together.

I do, however, have the stereo-typical experiences having been raised with a child with Down syndrome. Yes, I have received dirty looks from strangers in the grocery store. Yes, I have encountered my "friends" laughing too easily at my little brother. Yes, I have interpreted many orders for wait staff at restaurants how it drives me crazy that Todd will be the one ordering yet the wait staff makes eye contact with me and not with Todd.

But, those stereo-typical experiences are not what defines my relationship with my brother. That extra chromosome brings some wonderful affection and excitement. No one has a more boisterous greeting than Todd does for his family. He throws his hands up, hollers for you and throws his arms around your neck. He likes to high five and cootchy, cootchy, coo my kids (his niece and nephew). He loves to be called Uncle Todd.

No one sings a better rendition of "Happy Birthday" than Todd. This kid can not sing. Off key and mostly unintelligible, really, but full of joy and happiness. And LOUD. He sings loud. He does not hold back.

Todd always stands up tall and straight when he hears the National Anthem even if it is on TV. He will jump up off of the couch and stand at attention with his hand over his heart. He stands as still as a statue until the end, at which point he always yells "Play ball!" Even though the anthem is played for many more occasions than baseball games.

I worry that this post may not meet your expectations. Perhaps this post is all about expectations. Perhaps we are all worried about falling short in someone's eyes. Some people learn everything that they need to know in kindergarten. Me? Anything I needed to know I learned from Todd:

Greet by hugging one another.

Sing out loud for your own enjoyment.

Stand tall and straight.

Release your fear of failing to meet someone else's expectations.

My Inspiration

Anna Fry, Broomfield, CO

At the end of May, my brother Eric celebrated his 24th birthday. A milestone he was never intended to reach. As a baby/toddler, Eric suffered from pulmonary hypertension with an enlarged heart, chronic pneumonia, had a tracheostomy and was on a ventilator and went through a fundoplication: not a pretty sight. At the age of 2, my parents struggled to keep his weight at 15lbs. All the doctors would say was "make him comfortable" and plan for him to not live past the age of 4 they didn't know what it was or how to fix him. At that point, my parents decided to bring Eric home they were not going to let him die in a hospital bed with strangers - they wanted him to be near HIS family, HIS bed, HIS toys...HIS life. So, Eric tootled around the house with 100 feet of ventilator tubing, liked to play outside and antagonize the home health nurses by threatening the take out his trach and locking them out of the front door...all while standing in the window, pulling out his trach and coughing, then putting it back in. This hardly sounded like a 3 year old on his death bed but, as we were told, it was not if but when he would go into respiratory failure...then things would get ugly. And so my parents were cautiously optimistic but also focused on giving him as normal of a life as possible for the time he had left... all while hoping for a miracle.

My parents are amazing people - they took care of this boy... they raised him and loved him more than you can imagine, even though they felt him slipping away. My parents sunk everything they had into Eric's care. From time to money to sacrificing jobs for him to be near good doctors, to living off credit cards so that they could be at the hospitals. It was these sacrifices that cured him because they were there. One day, my mom fed us spaghetti for lunch. As normal as that was, Eric's trach suctioning after lunch was not. His secretions were orange " the color of diluted spaghetti sauce. This continued with grape juice, Kool-Aid, anything with color. My mom told the doctors he was aspirating and they said "Deb, we did the swallow test already, he's not aspirating." Despite this she persisted and they did another swallow test, this time milk with blue dye. And sure enough, his secretions were blue...and this is where the tables turned in our favor, for once. Eric underwent a fundoplication to correct his aspiration. After he was healed, his pneumonia and pulmonary hypertension dissipated, his heart was stable and the trach came out. He was healthy and he was going to live! Then, in 2000, he got strep. No big deal, we thought. Well, we were pretty wrong on that one! He got sicker and sicker and sicker. After being airlifted to Phoenix Children's Hospital, he was on life support for 2 weeks with septicemia and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). Again... the doctors said he likely would not survive. And... again... he did. Eric would get ARDS again in 2008 and would, again, survive. All against the odds.

Fast forward to 2009. My brother has grown into such an amazing young man. He graduated from high school in 2004 then graduated from a vocational education program in 2007. He is living in a group home with 3 roommates, he has a job at a sheltered workshop for adults with developmental disabilities, he goes to dances where he dances with "all of the girls." He desperately loves NASCAR (Kevin Harvick, Dale Jr. and Smoke!) and I try and take him to a race at least once per year. He lives for Shark Week on Discovery Channel and snakes at the local zoo. And these are the things we weren't sure he would ever see. But my brother is a fighter and one of the biggest inspirations of my life. Over the last 26 years, I have constantly held Eric responsible for who I am and who I've become. Yes, he pushed my buttons and made me crazy, but he taught me so much about life and how to fight, even when someone says it can't be done.

So, this is a celebration of my not-so-little man, aka "chicken legs," "Bubba" and "Jethro." And as Eric always says, "Somebody... stole your... shoes" (followed by a snorty laugh). Well, Eric... you stole my heart. I am so happy I still have you here to share life with and I thank God every day that you are here. You are my miracle. Thank you for enriching my life with yours.

Up Syndrome

Adriana Ferretiz, Palestine, TX

My name is Adriana and I am the proud mother of a handsome 7 year old with Down syndrome. My son's name is Mario Nicholas but we have always called him Nick. When Nick was born my husband and I instantly knew our baby was very special and unique as I'm sure any new parents feel but what we didn't know is that our sweet baby boy was indeed a special little gift specifically given to us from God.

We found out Nick had Down syndrome when he was 3 months old. His sonograms never showed us anything and the bloodwork was all normal. He didn't look like a child with Down syndrome therefore his doctor nor us even thought about it until his facial features started to change. I thank God that till this day Nick has a perfect little heart. We were hit with a HUGE adventure that we knew nothing about out. It's not always an easy road but well worth the effort and i wouldn't change it for the world. I was chosen to be his mother and I will always fight his battles for him for as long as I can.

Nick has been in school for 4 years and he loves making new friends and is very good at it. He has a brother and a sister who love him very much. He is the sunshine in our home and I couldn't imagine not having him in our lives. He is full of life and sees the world as one big happy place to play in and I admire him. My son is my hero and I feel very blessed to have him in my life. He is perfect and so amazing to me. He has taught me so much and each day is a new adventure and I am always looking forward to it. He doesn't speak much but knows how to let us know exactly what he wants. There is nothing down about Down syndrome because it has made our family stronger and has filled our lives with lots of love. In my opinion it should be "Up" Syndrome. These are special angels that only a few of us get chosen to be a part of their lives.

Different is Not Less

Lisa Nicholson, Brattleboro, VT

My daughter is "special", she is 11 years old and she has Down syndrome. In fact, every single person/creature in this world is "special", brings something to this world that can not be replicated and should be cherished. Value is not related to IQ, employment, academics, looks, physical accomplishments, health, money, homogeneity, rate of development, mobility, speech, hearing, seeing any of it. Value is intrinsic; worth is about being in the world, period.

I am not saying this because I read it or that other people believe it and have convinced me. I know this because I have experienced it, seen it, am lucky enough to recognize how lucky I am to have this opportunity; not just to see my child through a different lens but to see the whole world differently, including myself. Sometimes, Down syndrome or not, being in the world is full of pain, sometimes it is a very brief time here on earth- but even that has worth and value. I'm going so far as to say that the world would be a lesser place without people with Down syndrome in it, our community less enriched.

Our kids can do anything. Yes, I said anything. Or I should say, just as much anything as anyone else can do. In other words, if there is something that they would like to accomplish, they can set goals and work towards them. Just like all of us, our children can figure out, with their loved ones support, how to have the life they want to have, how to figure out what it is they want, how to best understand who they are and how that is all going to work together to create a life with meaning and pride. Is that different than anyone else?

It's all about a life well lived, not about the milestones acquired. Are you having fun, in love with your child and life? That's all there is. Does that mean you will have a perfect and happy life? No but if you do not it will not be because you have given birth to a child with a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

For me many of the things that I previously held as the way to happiness have all dissolved and I have found that my daughter has shown me better ways. I treasure her individuality like the gem it is. She feels fear and sadness deeply but seems to be able to live in the kind of mindful way that Oprah, yoga masters and therapists all charge top dollar to practice and coach their clients to achieve.

I have become special too. Because I have special gifts that I was never able to see before. And my most special gift is my daughter.

Sweetheart Queen

Annette Dempster, Thibodaux, LA

Hope is an 8th grader at Sixth Ward Middle School. She attends classes with regular education students as well as special education students. This is Hope's 3rd year in the middle school and she will be attending high school next year. It has been a fulfilling 3 years for all of us, but mostly for Hope and her fellow peers.

When she attended her first dance, she acted roughly and caused many students to steer away from her, but through time and patience, her fellow students learned from Hope while she learned from them.

In January 2010, Hope was nominated to the school's 2010 Sweetheart Court by the school administration. There were 10 boys and 10 girls nominated for this honor. The final selection was made by the student body as they entered the dance.

On Saturday, February 27, 2010, in front the students and family members, we watched (and cried) as Hope was crowned Sixth Ward Middle School 2010 Sweetheart Queen. This is a great accomplishment for not only Hope, but for the school she attends. The students love Hope as much as she loves them.

When we heard about her nomination, we were elated! We chose to view it as her, more than likely, only special moment in her school life. Let's face it, how many dances will she really attend? Will she be in a place where we, her parents will feel comfortable to let her loose? These are many of the thoughts we pondered, so we went all out!

Hope loves Disney and princesses, so we bought her a "Hope dress." It may not have been what the teens are wearing today, but she loved it. We had the manicure and pedicure so she could show off her "high heels" as well as some "bling-bling!" The hairdo was a Hope request too. She looked beautiful!

As she walked into the gym, many of the adults became misty eyed, while her peers gave compliments asked for pictures with her. Hope was no longer the girl she was 3 years ago, she was poised, attentive, and a person with many friends.

The high school better watch out, Hope is coming and she is bringing her fan club. So, perhaps there will be other dances and "Wow!" moments in her school future. But it really doesn't matter; she is our "Wow!" moment every minute of every day!

Ian Rawn, The Dreamer

Ian Rawn, Plano, TX

My name is Ian Rawn. I want to tell some great stories about possibility...possibility is what happens when you believe dreams can come true. I think we should always follow our dreams, and I did! I always wanted to be a firefighter, actor, athlete, volunteer, a businessman, and I want to get married. I've had people in my life that believe in possibilities, too, and they helped me to go for my goals. I can hardly believe how many of my dreams have come true...having Down syndrome didn't slow me down!

I became a volunteer to help children with disabilities. I was happy to help them with their lunch, recess and reading books. But what I didn't know was that my volunteering would have me nominated a Community Hero and to carry the Olympic Torch for the 1996 Atlanta Games. I was really proud to represent volunteerism and people with Down syndrome. The day I ran with the torch and presented it to the city was amazing. I'll never forget the sound of the crowd as I carried the torch into the amphitheatre.

Probably my happiest dream come true it this story. Our fire department started accepting applications for firefighters. I went to meet the chief and told him I wanted to be a firefighter. I filled out the application and then I waited. When I got the call, I've never been so happy. Thirty-two firefighters unanimously voted me in as a probationary firefighter. I went through sixty hours of training. My guys and I decided that when I was on a fire call I would not enter burning buildings; my part of the team was to be the hose, hydrant, and equipment man. I will never forget the day of my first fire; I worked hard to be a good part of my fire team and we worked hard together.

I decided it was time to say hello to my next dream; I started acting in the local theatre and performed in over ten musicals in four years. My favorite role was Zebulon in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Theatre put so many songs into my heart. I think every time I performed I got to enjoy my dream a little bit more. All the music and dance from theatre prepared me for my next goal: ice-skating! I compete now in Special Olympics and am so proud to be landing my jumps and spinning. I hope to go to the World Games!

The newest exciting part of life that makes everything feel right is that I found "my match!" Her name is Danielle and we are planning to be married in five years. I have an amazing job at an accounting firm, and I feel satisfied. My mom says, "Well, Mr. Rawn, I wonder what dream will be next for you." I smile and say, "I haven't decided yet, but I will let you know when I do." I hope we all believe in possibility, all the time.

Walking with Seth

Teresa Miller, Mt Carmel, IL

I was walking across the yard today with Seth. We were strolling more than walking, as he had wrapped his arm around my waist, and was looking at me as if to say, "This is nice." I asked Seth, "Did you have a good day?" I know he can't answer me with words, but the look on his face seems to say, "Yeah, I guess I did." So much of what Seth and I say to each other does not happen verbally. He has a way of looking into my very heart and speaking to me without saying a word. We have a connection that transcends speech. A connection that is so effortless, that I sometimes take it for granted.

Seth has had a pretty rough summer. His Grandma died in May, and I spent much of my summer gone, helping take care of my Dad, who became very ill for a time. I was trying to work full time, grieve for my Mom, do what I could for my Dad, and still be Mom in my household. Dad and big sister more than made sure that his needs were being met. I checked in with him when I could. Seth became so used to seeing me on Skype, he would go sit in front of the computer, waiting for me to show up. But even over the hazy connection of the internet, Seth could tell Mom was not OK. He tried very hard to make me feel better. I think he even became depressed, either not understanding what was happening, or maybe understanding too well.

As we were strolling across the yard, no more than a minute from the bus to the porch, it occurred to me that in all of the upheaval of the last few months, I had forgotten how to walk slowly. Seth always walks slowly, probably because of his physical limitations, but I suspect mainly because he can. He has the ability to be completely present, with whomever and in whatever situation, with no thought to "what next?" Seth gives your heart his undivided attention. His heart converses with your heart.

Walking slowly, arm in arm, swaying to Seth's wobbly gait, I realized how much I have missed time with Seth. In that one minute walk, I was reminded how much I need Seth to help me slow down connect. I owe so much to this child. I am often told how lucky Seth is to have us. I always reply with something like, "We are the lucky ones." It has occurred to me that we saved Seth's life by bringing him into our family. But Seth has more than "saved" me. He has renewed in me the value of the human connection. His skill is in being present with you. His reward is to see your smile. Life is much more beautiful when I slow down and look at it with Seth. I'm so thankful that Seth has taught me how to walk slowly.

Trying on the Uniform

Katherine Macedo, St. Augustine, FL

A dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and Autism challenges a family trying to participate in activities most take for granted. Over the years we have found one that brings complete joy, adventure and a sense of accomplishment. The activity is the junior ranger program at the National Parks.

We first learned of the program at Ft. Matanzas, FL. A ranger came up to our daughter Abby and presented her with a junior ranger badge. She was five years old and not too excited, but we were. Since then we have been to over fifty national parks. Together we participate in each park's junior ranger program, go to the visitor center and walk the shorter paved trails.

Through the years we find our daughter participating more and more. Initially it was a challenge to even enter the visitor center or place a mark in the junior ranger booklet let alone show any interest in the jr. ranger badge we pinned proudly on her blouse. Now with Abby at sixteen, we all enter the visitor center, check out one or two exhibits and even attend a few minutes of the park's movie. Together we can complete most of the jr. ranger booklet and activities. Abby presents the booklet to the ranger to receive a jr. ranger badge.

One of the more memorable experiences was last summer at the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, CO. Abby place the finished booklet on the ranger's desk, stood there calmly and looked him in the eye. When he presented Abby with a badge proclaiming her a junior ranger, the entire center's visitors, volunteers and ranger spontaneously clapped!

My Florida Trip

Kirsten Boswell, Normal, IL

I went to Florida with my mom last summer. It was a Mother, Daughter trip. We visited with my mom's family. My mom's side of family lives in Tampa and that is where we went.

My mom and I spend time with my family at their house. My Grandpa picks grapefruit every morning for breakfast.

We also went to Clearwater. We visited the Aquarium Home of Winter the dolphin. We saw the dolphin show. I got to hold Winters nose and I wasn't scared. My mom took a picture of me and Winter.

I like going to Frenchies Restaurant in Clearwater because, I like ordering the Cajun Catfish sandwich with coleslaw, strawberry smoothie and French Fries. It's the best I ever had!

I had a blast with my mother because she is very important in my life. This is a trip I will never forget with my mom.

Amazing Trista

Diane Adams, Orange, CA

In June of 2004, our daughter Trista was born with Down syndrome. We were so excited yet on nerves not knowing what to expect. When we found out at 4 months pregnant that she had Down syndrome, we contacted our local Down syndrome association and immediately got involved and learned all that we needed to do to get her on the right start for after her birth. She came into this world absolutely beautiful and had an amazingly strong determination right from the start!

In September of 2006, Trista was just a little over 2 years old when we received news that she had been diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML. This was the most shocking and difficult news and time for our family but let me tell you, Trista was very strong and full of life through the next 6 months. She never sat still and never let this disease get her down. We walked the floors from 8 am to 7 pm daily with our constant companion the IV pole. There was never a day that she just laid around in her room. Trista would fill those halls with so much joy, love, compassion and laughter. That is who Trista is! Patients and parents would look for Trista to come by with her infectious smile and "Hi!" Trista was a great part of bringing joy and happiness to those patients and parents in a time of great difficulty in their lives.

I am very proud and blessed to say that Trista has helped us and many others to see the meaning of life... have determination, a huge heart for others and a lot of love with a great big smile each and every day no matter what your challenge is! Trista has now been in remission for 3½ years living life to the fullest! She has passion for school, learning, friends, amusement parks, music and soccer. She is our "Amazing Terrific Trista."

Peighton

David Sunseri, Metairie, LA

At some point in our lives, whether it be kindergarten, grammar school or high school, we will have to write a report about our hero. Generally this report will consist of a sports figure, politician, or even a parent. I am 41 years old, and would like to tell the story of the person I admire the most in this world.

Her name is Peighton Lee Sunseri. She is a beautiful 14 year old young lady who happens to have been born with Down syndrome. Peighton was born on June 20, 1995. Her mom and dad would accept that she had Down Syndrome, but would never accpet it as an excuse to treat her any differently from a normal child.

Slightly under 2 years after she was born, something happened. The person that Peighton would look up to the most, and that would put a smile on her face for the rest of her life, was born. Her brother, Simon, was born April 4, 1997.

Simon being born was the single-most biggest influence in Peighton's life. As Simon got older, Peighton and Simon grew close. She mimicked everything he did. The way he talked, his interests, the way he dressed and his sense of humor. To this day, when Simon cracks a joke or makes funny faces Peighton lights up and laughs for days. Their bond is special. Peighton doesn't know she's handicapped, and Simon does not treat her as such. Simon does not see Peighton as a burden, but as his big sister who just needs a little help every now and then. Simon is always looking out for Peighton, even when he is upset with her, and Peighton never stops looking out for Simon.

Peighton not only has to deal with being a 14 year old with Down syndrome, but also a 14 year with Down syndrome and Alopecia Areata. Today she suffers from 98% hair loss. Her head is shaved today. Peighton doesn't let it get her down. She is human. At times it's hard to get her to let out what she is thinking, but she is strong and does not use it as an excuse to stay secluded. She puts on her cap, bandanna or wig and goes out and plays sports or just chills and listens to her mp3 player.

I love Peighton very, very much. She did not ask to be born with Down Syndrome. She did not ask to have Alopecia Areata. She is not complaining. Peighton can never move past having Down syndrome, and at the moment, cannot do anything about being a teenager who is bald. She keeps on being a teenage girl day after day. She makes no qualms about being a tomboy, but she is still Peighton Lee Sunseri in my eyes. "Sugar and spice and everything nice, thats a little girl" ...My little girl.

I am proud to say that Peighton Lee Sunseri is MY daughter and she is the person I admire the most in this world.

Her Beautiful Smile

Amy Phifield, Dover, DE

If I could tell you one thing about Nevaeh, it would be the way she brightens the world with just one smile. Nevaeh is our 16 month old daughter, she is the love of our life. When she was born and we found out she had Down syndrome, we weren't so much scared as we were unfamiliar. When she came out of the hospital we made sure we started getting involved in the "Down syndrome community." Our first event was the Boardwalk Buddy Walk 2009. It was the most amazingly heart warming moment for us. We walked up to get our shirts for the walk and we met Dennis. He got up gave us hugs and made us feel like this group of people whom we had never met before had been our family for years.

That day at the walk, it made me want to reach out and inform people about Down syndrome and show them what an amazing experience it is to have a relationship with these people and these families. I remember telling Dennis how truly blessed we were to have such a beautiful daughter with Down syndrome. I can't help but think that she will teach me so much more than I will ever be able to teach her. She is so pure and sweet, and I thank god everyday that he blessed me with this beautiful girl with this beautiful smile. I know that whenever things get hard in life, no matter what the situation, if she smiles it brightens my whole world. What more can a mother ask for?

Going to College

Kathleen Peden, Bloomington, IL

I was so very exciting when I first get the letter. The letter was send into our mail. Then when I open the mail I realize that I was accepted in college. Then I told that was accepted in college because she feels so very exciting. I was so very nervous because shaken I don't know why. When I was nervous I thought to myself that this is my dream. And when I thought about going back in college I had to make big decisions in my entire life and everything was changing because I just that I have a new life right then. It feels different because of my daily schedule is changing. It makes my day different because I have classes in the someday. On Monday and Wednesday I have reading and writing part two and math part two also. On Tuesday, and Thursday I have a Personal development, and Careers. The new schedule makes me little nervous because it was different.

My homework is easy because I am done with my homework in every class so that I have no homework every night. To me in every class they gave me so much homework that I can't organize my homework or in every subjects. Sometimes my homework gets very difficult. Then when I get some help from my teachers, and my mother sometimes. And sometimes I feel very stress because my homework makes me feel tired.

I met a great guy, and he was very sweet, very romantic, and that is why I have found him as a friend until we decide to go out right then, and there. And now I feel so very safe and he shows me how he loves me. To me in his eyes I know he is always being there in my arms where he belongs. When I am with him he makes all my dreams come true. We decided to go out after classes we decided to walk through the park and we decided to hold our hands right then, and there. Sometimes he makes me laugh, and makes me smile every day. It makes me feel so very safe and very loved by him when I am in his loving arms. The conclusion is going back to college it was a big success for my life and for me also.

Jonathon

Debbie Kilgore, El Reno, OK

My youngest child Jonathon was born 11 years ago with Down syndrome. He was almost 6 months old before he was diagnosed. At first my husband and I were devastated. We were unsure of what this meant, and were fearful of the many medical problems associated with Down syndrome. Thankfully our fears were for not as Jonathon has been blessed with good health, and he is a blessing to his whole family. When we meet new people and they hear our son has Down syndrome the usual response is "I am so sorry"! This makes me laugh, and I assure them there is no reason to be sorry. Jonathon is the love of my life and is as smart and funny as any other 11 year old boy. He is helpful, and kind, truly one of God's angels on earth. He enjoys softball, swimming, flying with his Grandad, and watching his cartoons. He is also the Uncle of three nephews who he loves to run and play with. One of those nephews is a year older then he is and they are best buddies.

Jonathon has been such a blessing, I could not imagine my life without him in it. God sent me my very own angel and I will forever be thankful for him. He is my inspiration and has taught me so much. He has inspired my to return to school as an older adult. I plan on using my education to advocate for other special needs children. I thank God every day for Jonathon and will spend the rest of my life loving him.

Sign of the Times

Beth Hardinger, Brainerd, MN

In March of 2009, at 15 months old, Lauren was nonverbal. She didn't babble much and didn't use 'mama' or 'dada' meaningfully. We were told by her wonderful Early Intervention teacher to try sign language. Neither my husband nor I knew sign language, but were willing to learn, if it meant we could communicate with Lauren better. We started off in April of '09 with a baby sign book from our local library, only learning helpful signs such as 'more' and 'up'. She did her best learning at night, right before bed. We could teach her several signs at a time and test her in the morning she would remember them all correctly! By July '09, she had about 25 signs that she used frequently to communicate with us.

By March of 2010, she had 100 signs. Everything from people (mom, dad, Avery {sister}) to foods to toys. It was then we got our hands on a copy of Signing Time by Rachel Coleman. WOW. Lauren would watch the DVD a few times and would know all of the signs and their meanings.

It is now January 2011. Lauren is verbal, but still signs when she speaks. She knows 350 signs and uses 75 spoken words. She is a quick learner, needing only to be shown the sign and its meaning a few times and she memorizes it. We are still teaching her signs, because we consider ASL to be her first language. We have about 7 Signing Time DVDs, and Lauren has them all memorized. She knows all of the songs, and can sign right along with Rachel.

Lauren has received private speech services through a therapy center for nearly a year. We noticed that after the first session, she was speaking more. Lauren's Speech/Language pathologist wrote a book for kids specifically to help them speak. It is Lauren's favorite book and she will be videotaped as part of advertising for Miss T's book.

When I first learned of Lauren's diagnosis shortly after birth, I honestly didn't know much about Down syndrome. The books that were given to me by the local Early Intervention office were outdated by 20-30 years. The things that were written in the book were so depressing: 'Your child will probably never walk/talk/learn to use the toilet. You will have to take care of your child for the rest of his life, because they are incapable of learning.' Yes. Those were the things a new young mother and father were being told. How heartbreaking.

The more I read about Down syndrome (once we had access to Internet and modern books) the more hopeful I became about Lauren's future. And then we started signing with her. We were amazed at how fast she learned things (you know, because she was 'incapable' of learning).

She has a very bright and successful future ahead of her, and we are so very proud of our baby.

Frank Scarfone

Frank Scarfone, Harrison, NY

My son, Frank Louis Scarfone, Jr., was recently inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame at a black tie affair at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Frank is the only known martial artist with Down syndrome in the country who has attained the level of Forth Degree Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do.

Frank started Tae Kwon Do with the South East Consortium for Special Services. Ron Belmont was the instructor. When it was evident to Ron that Frank could move on, Ron suggested that Frank join Rico dos Anjos "normal" class. The rest is history. Frank is now a fourth degree black belt. He has participated in many karate tournaments.

Frank has traveled to many places with us. He has been to Italy, Alaska, California, the Rocky Mountains, Grand Canyon - just to name a few. Frank has also been on trips with the South East Consortium to Washington D.C., Vermont, Boston, Walt Disney World and numerous other places.

Frank has been a member of a bell choir and a choral group - also associated with the South East Consortium.

Frank is a 43-year-old with Down syndrome. Frank's numerous accomplishments are a source of pride for our family.

Frank's roles in the family as son, brother, and uncle have been very welcomed. He has an older sister, a younger brother, three nieces and one nephew. At times when growing up, his brother and sister were often torn between love and empathy for Frank, who candidly could be quite vexing at times; but Frank's charm always won them over. His brother and sister vacillated between being his best friend and being embarrassed about having an unusual brother. Fortunately, love always won.

Frank has always been very outgoing, loveable and personable - not in-your-face loveable; but loveable nonetheless. Frank is a celebration of the human spirit with an inner strength that we should all imitate.

Frank is an altar server at our church and volunteers at our church's summer camp for needy children. He has also volunteered his services at some of the activities of the White Plains Recreation Department. Frank worked as a teacher's aide in a school for special children. He had been working at this job for twenty-one years receiving a paycheck commensurate with his work, life insurance and health benefits. However, due to the economic crisis our country has been experiencing, Frank lost his job and is now doing volunteer work at the food pantry of our church. He lives at home and is a great help around the house.

Mothers Day

Jo Ann Simons, Swampscott, MA

This is a time to honor us. Our children get older and they may even move out of our homes someday. But, they never move out of our hearts. Today, I am saluting us. We have accepted some of life's greatest challenges and still greet each day with enthusiasm. We have our bad days, but we think of them as challenges and remember the gifts our children bring us. While I salute us, I am thinking of the mothers who came before us and made our travels so much easier. Because of their efforts, when my son was born almost 32 years ago, we were welcomed into the community of exceptionality by early intervention, family support, public education and the right to dream that anything was possible. If you are a new parent, welcome to the club of responsibility. This is where we each have the obligation to build on the success of those who came before us. While we didn't ask to be in this club, this is what life has given us. Let me share a story about my son, Jon. After Jon finished high school, he left home for a post-graduate program. For visits home, he learned to take a bus from school to Logan Airport, where we would meet him at the USAir Terminal. One particular Friday there was chaos at Logan as travelers tried to make other arrangements for cancelled flights. Several of the buses I expected Jon to be on came and went and Jon was not among the passengers. A bus got stuck in the terminal. All traffic was diverted. My efforts to get information only made my growing anxiety worse. There were two different police forces at the airport and each gave me different information. I tried calling the bus company, only to be foiled by the long lines for phones and the bus company's voice mail system. My cell phone was with my daughter, then 15, who was preparing for one of those all important semiformals. I was beginning to fear I would miss yet another one of her milestone events. I began to add up all the events I had missed because I was doing something related to her brother. I hadn't forgiven myself for missing her first day of kindergarten. I finally found a phone and demanded that the bus company radio the next bus to locate Jon as he was now 90 minutes late and that was too long for him to be unaccounted for. Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned and it was Jon. He had been dropped off at another terminal and took the airport shuttle back to USAir, all the while carrying a large duffle. Hugging him, I asked how he found me and he answered, "I have known you my whole life." Whenever I meet a mother who shares the same journey, it as if I have known her my whole life. Happy Mother's Day.

My Angel

Natasha McBee, Tazewell, TN

My name is Natasha. I have an 8 year old daughter named Cheyenne, who has Down syndrome. She is the light of my life and I'm thankful every day to have her. She was born May 4th, 2002 in Knoxville, TN. She was 4 weeks early and weighed 4lb 12oz and was 15 inches long. I didn't think much about it then because i was so young, but now I realize just how lucky I am to have a child like her. I'm proud to say this is my daughter Cheyenne and she has Down syndrome. I know I'm a very lucky mom to have her!

Bye Bye Ceiling

Tacee Webb, Portland, OR

When I was 30, I found out prenatally that my child had Down syndrome. I did not know what Down syndrome was. Doctors gave me clinical and mostly outdated literature along with books on how to grieve the loss of my child. As I was told my baby had no other health problems, I decided to move forward with the pregnancy. It was an emotional time. I knew I was choosing the road less traveled and I learned and began to embrace this different kind of journey. Not long after my difficult decision, a new set of tests revealed that my unborn child had a hole in his heart that would require surgery soon after his birth. My theory in moving forward with the pregnancy was mostly based on that my child's "syndrome" was really a natural variation, occurring equally in all populations throughout history. Who was I to interfere with nature? My healthy baby would otherwise live, I thought. With the news of my child's heart issue, I quickly changed my philosophy. I now had to save this beautiful little life that would not otherwise survive to 1 year old. I learned all of this information before ever finding out that my baby was a boy. Down syndrome, heart defects and all the tedious medical terminology suddenly fell away. I was having a son.

The day Jack was born was the happiest in my life. He arrived exactly on his due date. My daughter and I came up with the nickname "Black Jack" for him. We decided his extra 21st chromosome was good luck. I can honestly say I would not change the fact that Black Jack has Down syndrome. His uniqueness has become one of the most precious and life affirming gifts we have known. Choosing Jack was, for me, about staying open to the mysteries of the world and of the heart. My belief in a universe that is magical, beautiful and fundamentally good, was proven the moment I saw my son's face.

Some of the most touching things about Jack, who now attends "typical" Kindergarten, are the simple and incredible things he says. We call these words, phrases and songs Jack's "poetry." Before he knew the concept or word for "outside," for example, when we left the house he would wave to the sky and say "Bye Bye Ceiling!" Later we named our chopped off, convertible Range Rover, The BBC, for Bye Bye Ceiling. Soon warm days will come to Oregon and we will celebrate the sun in the BBC again. We will say "Bye Bye Ceiling" with great joy, arms reaching up toward the limitless sky. When we say this, it is a reminder of how our lucky Black Jack has taught us to see his potential, as well as to provide perspective on our own. He has shown us to stay open to the magic in life in all its rare, strange and beautiful variations.

Trista is Five

Kristin Barrett, Shalimar, FL

Trista is now five years old. Hard to believe we have all made it through this past five years! Trista is in a regular classroom for kindergarten this year. Trista has been given a one-on-one aide to assist her at school. She is slower than the other children in her academics and tires easily, but so far she is doing very well and ENJOYS going to school. We want Trista to be given every opportunity to succeed at her level.

Sometimes we have to remind others to celebrate what Trista can do! It is hard in a school setting where testing is everything, but Trista shows me every day that that SHE is where she needs to be at this moment. We are thankful for all she has given us. Trista is my inspiration, my slow-it-all-down reminder, and a wonderful addition to our lives. Plus, her sisters think she is the best, sometimes!

A Story of Happiness

Jennifer Seiger, Warrior Run, PA

My name is Jennifer, and I am the proud mother of my 2 year-old-son names Charles who happens to have Down syndrome. Charles is great and can do many things like walk, give the greatest hugs, dance, sing the "O" in "Old MacDonald has a Farm," and so much more! There is one thing that Charles does best — he can make anyone smile.

A typical shopping adventure at the mall generally consists of Charles giving me the signal to walk and hold his hand. As we stroll through the mall, I typically hear, "Oh, look at that cute boy." Charles instantly turns his head, smiles and waves as if it's his best friend. Instantly, the people smile and wave back.

Sunday mass is the best, Charles is practically a celebrity! The waves begin as soon as we enter the church. Charles and Father shake hands, and Charles gives him a high-five. As the mass continues, Charles waves to everyone, from the members of the congregation behind us to the organist in the balcony.

Charles has greatly impacted my husband's life. He has become a super-dad, and my hero. My son has a colostomy due to Hirschsprung's disease. Every week after my husband applies the colostomy bags, Charles gives us both a big hug. I think he's saying "thanks for being so gentle, Dad." Charles has had numerous hospital visits - my husband is always by his side. Whenever we go to a kids show at our local arena, Charles sits with his father for protection from the loud noises. Because of our son, my husband has become a gentle, compassionate protector.

And then there's me. Whenever I talk about my son, I glow. I can't help but smile in amazement. I appreciate all of his abilities, big and small. I view crying and tantrum as simple development and embrace his progress. The anticipation of Charles reaching his milestones, gives me more of a reason to celebrate when he achieves them. Charles constantly reminds me to raise my expectations. He helps me see all the positive things that life can bring.

My son's great story has just begun. I am enjoying his toddler years, and while I don't know what the future has in store for him, I know that he will be his very best, and he will bring happiness into many people lives. And that, to me, is perfect.

Three Things

Melissa Flink, Ocean City, NJ

Perspective, Love, and God. Three things, among many, that I've learned more about in the past year than I have in 25 years of life. My beloved son Judah Christian was born on August 19, 2008 and, unbeknownst to me at the time, had Down syndrome.

Returning home a couple weeks after Judah's birth was a more-bitter-than-sweet reality. Hospital life was actually easy compared to watching my expectations of Judah's life, of our new life together, crumble before my eyes. It was an adjustment then and still is now, however a little easier. What has begun to matter are small victories and at times, when I'm paying attention, miracles. The things I deem important have changed. Judah gave me perspective.

There is something amazing about the love of a mother, isn't there? If you knew me, you'd agree that Judah's life has broken barriers and granted me the ability to love and care for someone in a way I never knew existed. I'm learning that love is sacrifice, love is intentional and, of course, love is unconditional. Judah has given me love.

The name Judah means "praise or God's praise". My husband Jeff and I had the named picked out long before his birth, only understanding in part, the child we'd be given. From the moment Judah took his first labored breath, God's angels have been at his side. He's overcome multiple surgeries (one life-threatening) feeding tubes, oxygen tanks, and hospitalizations, all the while bringing joy to every person with which he comes in contact. God delights in Judah, Judah is God's praise.

I've come to realize that Judah's life will be much less about him, though I know he'll do wonderful things and accomplish much, and more about how he'll impact other people. I'm beginning to understand that the scope is much broader than I'd initially thought. Judah's in the business of changing lives. His story is just beginning and I'm so thankful, honored even, that I've been chosen to be a part of it.

My Great Story

Tony Piontek, New Iberia, LA

My 35 years on this Earth have been filled with travel, and I can't wait to share this with you.

To begin, I was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico and went to school in English and Spanish in interesting places like Coqui and Central Aguirre. I also made many road trips for three years over two mountain ranges to San Juan and Ponce for chemotherapy and radiation for my leukemia. My favorite Puerto Rican memory is catching coconuts from the trees my brother John climbed so we could make coconut cups and chips.

When my brothers David and Joe graduated from the Naval Academy, we traveled to Annapolis, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The military parades were the thing for me. We then spent time in Chicago before permanently moving to Louisiana, the world's most famous spot for Cajun food. The winter in Chicago gave me the chance to do tobogganing and cross country skiing.

In New Iberia, in Boy Scouting during two summers, I trekked, did caving, blacksmithing, rock climbing, repelling and making real horse shoes at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. There were also summer camping trips with my Troop at Mt.Bayou, Tunica Hills and Sam Houston, Texas.

With Special Olympics, I officiated at the Summer International Games, New Heaven, Connecticut as an Aquatics Stroke & Turn and Timer Judge in the Athletes As Officials Program. As an athlete swimmer, I competed at the Summer International Games in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. I connected with people from all over the world!

Self-Advocacy started new travels for me like to the International People 1st Conference in Alaska and the National Down Syndrome Congress Conventions in Boston and Sacramento. I had a great challenge giving my Nomination Speech for the NDSC Board and giving a presentation on the Discussion Panel.

A few years ago, the Piontek family had a cruise to Bermuda. All my Aunts, Uncles, and cousins in one place for great togetherness!

I have a big family with brothers and sisters living in many wonderful cities and countries that makes traveling special. We visited with Joe in Germany and Austria, and later twice in Rome. We could walk from his apartment to the Vatican for daily Mass and stop for gelato when it was hot. From Italy, we even made a side trip to Poland and rented an old berry farm for a week. Breakfasts were fresh raspberries on pancakes, of course. This year my brother, Daniel, made his perpetual religious vows and we traveled and stayed in ancient Monasteries in Southern France and Corsica for that.

Back in the U.S., I have a sister, Jenny, in Arkansas, David in San Diego, John in Miami, and a sister, Christine, right here in New Iberia with me. That all makes for some tripping around. And now my brother, Joe, lives in Peru. Maybe that's another trip. Here I come, Machu Picchu.

Your Self-Advocate friend.

She's My Sister

Amanda Felt, Portland, OR

In short, I am who I am because I am the sibling of a woman with Down syndrome. Life with my sister, Megan Jane Felt, has implanted in me patience, understanding, compassion, intolerance, uncontainable protectiveness, the belief that ones limits are more decided than given, humility, humor, a heart swollen with unconditional adoration, an appreciation for routine, persistence, more persistence, selflessness and faith in the god that keeps her safe. There are more but those are the ones that I employ daily. The struggles that came with being raised along side Megan extracted character qualities by necessity. We were shaped so that we all could thrive. There was no I; it was we or nothing. My family core became a functional team with the great haste. No one person more important than the other. From a gathering of threads, we became rope.

I suppose I'll share a story. I had a birthday recently and I make certain to miss the phone call that comes in with a birthday song on the other end. I miss the call so that the song lands firmly on my voicemail. Frozen in time and readily available for when I need a boost in my day. The call came, I let it ring through and I waited. I shut my office door and I retrieved my message. I noted this year that Megan has discovered several new notes in her voice. Previously she'd cleverly used a variance in volume to achieve the illusion of notes. As I listened to this song, my brain gave me the image of what she and my mom look like as they sing into the speaker phone. Megan, watching mom closely for singing cues and mom watching Megan trigger the newly mastered singing muscles in her larynx. We, as a family, are quick to express pride and remain incredibly easy to entertain. After the voicemail there was the box. These boxes (entombed in too much tape and more magic marker than I knew cardboard could absorb) have carried pottery, oil paintings, crayon drawings, watercolors, pencil sketches, cursive practice sheets and pictures of random dogs. Among my favorites was a glazed clay cat lying on its back with it's feet stick straight in the air and its tail stretched flat. Megan had titled it, "road kill." I have mugs, sugar jars, change holders all marking the advancement of her craft. She's been through a blue period and a realist phase. She's pressed through abstraction and indulged in tracing. I have parade of her six legged animal sketches tattooed around my leg. Megan is an artist. This year's gift, the thing that cracked me open was the envelope that my card came in. she'd written my address in her best cursive. It read,

amanda felt
she's my sister
523 ne 19th ave

I've never been so proud to be someone's sister. Ever.

Our Son, Our HERO

Tom Lambke, Chandler, AZ

Karen and I had been married over four years and were itching to start our family. Finally, on December 3, 1981, after one miscarriage, our son Bryan was born. As I witnessed this miracle in the delivery room, I noticed our baby's eyes looked different. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach as I realized our baby boy had Down syndrome. Incredibly, my first selfish thought was, "Now who will I play baseball with?" Karen's oldest sister also had a baby boy with Down syndrome. But Patrick had passed away the previous year due to a heart condition. Obviously, we did not have much experience with individuals with a disability, so Karen and I decided to raise Bryan as best as we could. To us that meant taking him with us everywhere we went. Bryan experienced a lot his first few years. When he was just six months old, we flew from Illinois to California to visit my brother, Ken. He went to parties and concerts. Then, when Bryan was ten months old, his doctor detected a heart murmur.

Heart surgery is a traumatic event for anyone to experience, but Bryan displayed strength and courage beyond his young age. The hole in his heart was repaired with a Teflon patch which would grow with his heart. After a five week stay, including his first birthday in intensive care, our beautiful and now-healthy son was allowed to come home. Little did we know that would be the last moment of sadness that Bryan would bring to our lives for the next twenty-six years.

As we sailed through life, adding our daughter, Shauna, we discovered a world full of prejudices and stereotypes. We encountered many people who did not view someone with a disability as an equal. There were still many who looked at Bryan with sorrow and at us with sympathy. We had some frustrating years, including many stages of Bryan's education, but we used his personality to open doors socially. We realized we had become advocates for Bryan and others with disabilities by simply doing what we thought was best for him.

At the age of eight, Bryan started competing in Special Olympics. He enjoyed track and field, running the fifty meters and competing in the softball throw. It allowed him to grow socially as well as physically. Since that initial competition, Bryan has won numerous medals in other sports: basketball, swimming, kayaking and bowling. Although he did try Challenger Baseball, he did not like it and Shauna grew up to be the softball player in our family. Our lives were changed forever in June of 2002, when I was chosen to be Bryan's partner in Unified bowling at the 2003 Special Olympics Summer World Games in Ireland.

The excitement leading up to the games, the trip to Ireland itself, and the notoriety we experienced when we came home with gold medals, allowed me to complete a lifelong dream of writing a book. Our lives with Bryan resulted in: SPIRIT, COURAGE and RESOLVE ... a Special Olympics Athlete's Road to Gold. While researching and writing the book, I changed careers. I am now an Instructional Assistant, also known as a paraprofessional, in Special Education at the high school where Shauna (2003) and Bryan (2001) both graduated.

Meanwhile, on his twenty-first birthday, Bryan got a tattoo. It is a logo of his and our favorite band, Aerosmith. He has had his ear pierced and he holds two jobs. More importantly, Bryan and I have co-authored a second book. I JUST AM ... a Story of Down Syndrome Awareness and Tolerance which explains Bryan's thoughts and feelings about his disability and how he perceives others may feel. It contains many pictures of Bryan and his friends. It also includes many facts about Down syndrome that most people should know, but we have discovered over the years, they do not.

We have appeared on many television shows in Phoenix and Tucson, been featured in articles in numerous newspapers and magazines, and are members of the Advisory Board of Best Buddies Arizona. Best Buddies is an organization started by Anthony Kennedy Shriver in 1989 which pairs high school students with disabilities with others to form friendships and encourage them to do activities at school as well as away from school. We use I JUST AM as a tool to speak about awareness and tolerance of individuals with disabilities to schools of all grades and Down syndrome groups throughout the country.

Bryan's goals and dreams do not differ much from those without a disability. Someday he would like to get married and live on his own. He has brought so much joy to us each and every day. He has been a positive influence on all his relatives and anyone he touches. When he was born, many people tried to make Karen and I feel better by telling us that God had chosen us because we were special. We have always known it is Bryan who is special. Not because of his disability, but because of how he has accepted his life, with joy and love for all. I thank God every day for giving us Bryan.

---
Tom is a paraprofessional in special education at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona, and also works as a baseball and softball umpire. Daughter Shauna is also a paraprofessional in special education at a local high school as well. Along with his wife, Karen, Tom is the founder and former president of Recreation and Athletics for the Disabled (RAD). RAD is a nonprofit group in Chandler that financially assists individuals with disabilities to participate in recreational activities. Tom and Bryan will be speaking at the World Down Syndrome Congress in Ireland in 2009. Learn more about Tom's publications atwww.spiritcourageresolve.com and www.ijustam.org.

Love and Determination Earn Black Belt

Kathy Welde, Bellbrook, OH

He licked his suddenly dry lips, blinked a few times as he tried to focus, paused several seconds before positioning his body and...then...with another blink and a slump of the shoulders, he slipped back out of sync.

After a few more lengthy resets, he finally shot his right leg up and out and brought his bare foot crashing down — an axe kick — onto the wooden board held up by a white-robed fellow student.

And — for the 12th straight time — the board did not break, causing many in the small crowd to let out a barely audible, but fully embracing sigh.

Jesse Richardson — who had prepared seven years for this moment — was testing for his black belt in front of Master George Bleil, head of the Dayton Area Taekwondo Center, last Sunday, June 7, at the Boonshoft Center for Jewish Culture and Education.

Jesse — who is 29 and has spent a lifetime kicking right through the limitations that come with Down syndrome — had worked his way up through 10 different belts and just a few nights earlier, in front of another crowd, had slowly read his written report on what tae kwon do meant to him.

It had taken him a half an hour to get through the 250 words, but his sincerity and determined effort had brought many to tears. Sunday he had begun his test, first by showing off various kicking, blocking and punching skills, then splintering a few boards using different blows.

But he was struggling with the axe kick.

His mom, Cathy "Kat" Welde, sat there trying to catch his eye to tell him he was fine, even though on the ride to Centerville, she'd been so nervous she nearly asked her husband, Joe Daniel, to pull over because she was going to be sick.

And Joe — Jesse's loving stepdad — was in worse shape. Cathy wouldn't let him sit next to her because she feared he'd break into tears — as he'd done at Jesse's oration — and then they'd both "be bawling like babies."

Each of the belts Jesse has earned is displayed on a special rack — beneath his collection of elaborate horror masks — in his meticulously kept bedroom.

Yet with each promotion, the one thing he kept longing for was a black belt, and finally [Master George Bleil, head of the Dayton Area Taekwondo Center] thought he was ready.

Jesse practiced for weeks so he could read the tae kwon do paper his mom helped him with. And then came last Sunday's test and that troublesome axe kick.

Bleil patiently waited through some 20 failed attempts, but would not give Jesse a pass. "This isn't a gift," he said. "A piece of wood is not going to defeat him."

And then with one sharp blow, Jesse sent his heel crashing through the board. The crowd applauded and he closed his eyes tightly and shook his hands in sheer delight.

Printed with permission from the Dayton Daily News/Tom ArchDeacon.

To read the full article, visit: http://www.daytondailynews.com/dayton-sports/man-with-down-synrome-earns-black-belt-through-love-determination-162180.html?cxtype=rss_sports

He Did It!

Staci Kolb, East Greenwich, RI

March 2009

He did it. My adorable, three and one-half year old finally did it. He has been very close for awhile, but particularly close all week. This morning, however, he actually did it. You cannot imagine the overwhelming sense of pride I felt watching him achieve this seemingly (until today!) monumental task.

As he had all week, he instructed me (via a low guttural groan and a dramatic point to the floor) to get him off the dressing table and to bring his pants. After following his orders, (as I often do) I just sat and watched (as I often do). This morning, I cannot explain why, it just felt different. With the determination of an Olympic athlete, he sat on the floor and began to put his right foot in the right pant leg. Always, his right foot in the right pant leg first. He never attempted it any other way. He pushed and maneuvered and wiggled and somehow willed his right leg all the way through. His foot! His foot actually appeared at the end of his pant leg! It was the most amazing and completely surprising sight we had ever seen. You have never seen anyone so happy to see a foot. For a brief moment, his proud smile simply ate his entire face. But his task was not complete.

After a quick, conspiring and victorious glance in my direction, he was back to business. I understood, having been disappointed in the past, he did not want to celebrate too early. He turned to me and pointed to his left foot (all the while keeping his right foot held high in the air as a symbol of his victory). "Phooot," he said, actually, he said it more to his foot than to me. "Phooot in," he commanded. He peered over his glasses, which by now had slid down his little nose, further evidencing all of his hard work. His face was very serious. Then, as if in slow motion, he started to place his left foot in his left pant leg and he pushed and maneuvered and wiggled and somehow (some, including me, would say miraculously), the unthinkable happened. His left foot appeared at the end of his pant leg. Another foot in!! He could not believe it! I could not believe it!

Before I could get up, grab him in my arms and squeeze the ever living life out of him. He was on his feet. His chubby little hands were grasped to the waist band of his pants. He stared at me and said "up!" I did not even realize there was more to this task than just putting your feet into your pants. He actually wanted to pull up his pants. He was really serious about this. He stood up and pulled. He pulled and pulled (not falling over once). What happened next was one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever witnessed – maybe for both of us. But do you know, he did it. He actually did it. My adorable three and one-half year old little boy actually pulled his pants all the way up. We celebrated. We jumped and screamed and cheered.

I called his five year old brother into the room. One of the many great things about five year old boys is their ability to get so excited over just about anything. Sensing the thrill in the room already, he joined in the festivities. All three of us were screaming. We ran victory laps around his room, laughing almost to exhaustion. It was a glorious moment. He actually did it. Then, as if it was just any other day, we went downstairs, had breakfast and drove to school. But I know, and in my heart I will always know, it was not just any other day. It was the day he actually put on his own pants! I could not be more proud.

The View

Holly Fedele, Biloxi, MS

On the fourth story of a hospital, Trent and I lived in a small room. His medical crib took up most of the space. My couch/bed/thingy took up the rest. When I pulled up the shade to let in rays of natural light, I saw the view from our room and had another round of tears. Accepting that my newborn had Down syndrome left me grief stricken, but when I held him close and smelled his hair, I felt pure and eternal love. It was a grab-bag of emotions.

So the view: An air conditioner unit. Not just a small unit. This unit serviced the entire hospital. It was huge with pipes everywhere, billowing smoke. It was gray, dirty, and ugly. I longed for something prettier to look at.

One day, I decided to rearrange our little room to maximize the space. (Stir-crazy?) My couch/bed/thingy was moved next to the window, and when Trent awoke from his nap, we sat down to cuddle. While Trent returned to dreaming, I gazed out the window and hoped the clouds would entertain me.

I was surprised to find that from the new angle, I could see beyond the ugly air conditioner unit.

First, I saw a row of oak trees. Beyond that, a bridge. Underneath that bridge, I saw a sliver of the Mississippi River. Occasionally, I could see the movements of boats as they glided, slow and lazy, through the water.

Although my view of the bridge and river was miniscule, it was a view nonetheless. I made that particular room configuration permanent, and Trent and I always cuddled in that spot. I realized God was sending me signs.

The initial shock and sadness from Trent's diagnosis was like the ugly air conditioner unit.

The billows of smoke were the clouding of the knowledge of what is truly important.

The pipes were the long emotional and physical journey my family was on.
The rearranging of the room was the change of perspective I desperately needed.

The oak trees were my maternal instinct, strong enough to form the foundation of love and acceptance.

The bridge and river were Trent, with his glorious and beautiful God-given life.
The boats were the differences that Trent will have from others. His development may be slower but will still happen.

The longer I stared at the trees, bridge, and river, the less I noticed the air conditioner, pipes, and smoke.

I wrote The View two years ago. Trent, once a sick newborn, is now a healthy, amazing toddler learning how to walk and use sign language. There is absolutely nothing ugly about him or his diagnosis of Down syndrome. In fact, he is my perfect view in every way.

Family Hiatus

Stacy Quaid, Bradenton, FL

The reason I want to share our story is to encourage families, especially families of very young children with Down syndrome, not to set limits on what life with Down syndrome will be like. Life with Down syndrome is a grand adventure!

When our second daughter, Eleanor "Ella", was born in 2001 with Down syndrome, I thought my life had forever changed, and not for the better. It was a difficult time and I thought about Down syndrome a lot. Eventually, as Ella grew older, I started to think about Down syndrome less and less. By the time Ella was in first grade and an opportunity for an adventure presented itself, we didn't think twice about Down syndrome keeping our family from doing anything.

In August 2009, our family of five left the Florida suburbs to live on a biodynamic farm in rural Ireland for one year. My husband and I were "house parents". We lived and worked alongside young adults with special needs, including several students with Down syndrome.

We left behind a very convenient and structured world of inclusive school, friends, activities, private therapy appointments, and individualized education programs. Things are done differently in Ireland. Life is slower and much more relaxed. We learned to balance the high quality of life with a relative lack of services for people with special needs.

Ella's occupational and physical therapy routine became fence climbing, flower arranging, bread making and playing the lyre; speech/language therapy was addressed through drama, playing wind instruments and conversing with people from all over the world. Ella never had an IEP at the local school she attended but received everything she needed including an aide in a mainstream classroom. She made excellent progress in reading and social skills. She was invited to play dates on a very regular basis.

We had high and low experiences in Ireland but none of us would trade the overall experience for anything in the world. All of us have a better understanding now of what life may be like when Ella is an adult. Our eldest daughter, Mary, may have decided to work with people with disabilities when she grows up. Our youngest child, Dylan, sees no difference between people with and without special needs, or from different backgrounds.

Ella communicated her awareness of her own special needs during our stay in Ireland. That moment would have been hard for us no matter where in the world we were but I am glad that it happened during a time when we were living an adventure and not letting Down syndrome keep us from doing anything.

Down syndrome has not limited our experiences or adventures in life, in any way. In fact, some doors were opened for us because Ella is a lovely little girl who just happens to have Down syndrome.

On the Bus

Amy Armstrong, Champaign, IL

I made the decision to try out sending Larkin on the bus to school and that has had my stomach in knots for a while. She has been walking for 9 months so it made sense to try out transportation that allows her some independence. Seems fair huh? Easier said then done.

The bus turned the corner and I waved from the window and watched as the driver turned around and pulled up in front of the house.

Strangers. They don't her story. They don't know this girl. They don't know the pain, angst, struggle, and all the ologists in this little girls life. They don't know the fight we have given to get her to standing on this curb.

I helped her up the big steps.

I said hello to the driver and the aide.

They were pleasant and helpful.

I always appreciate when others speak directly to Larkin and treat her like a little person.

I tell the aide that Larkin is non verbal. What I want to do is give her the seven page Word document I hand to every caregiver so they can see her story paragraph by horrible paragraph.

I help her into the big seat and she looks out the window.

The aide snaps her seat belt in place.

I stepped back and took a picture.

Just as her first set of skeletal x-rays, chest x-ray, heart echo, EKG, EEG, MRI, CT scan, my heart sank and every single mommy fiber of me screamed to grab her back. To grab her and run away. To run from these strangers and hide away with her and protect every hair on her beautiful head.

I recognize the symptoms. I steeled my hands into fists and took a deep breath.

I told the strangers to take her safely to school and bring her home the same.

I stepped backward off the bus.

I took a picture.

I let go. Because all of the firsts that I listed above gave us the path to helping this little girl stand on that curb. Get on that bus. Sit in that seat. Look out that window.

She is a beauty to behold. She is amazing. She is Grace and Redemption personified. She is my heart, soul, spirit, and my love.

Walking back to the front door I could hear Brin and Erin crying for me and I sat with both babies on the floor of the foyer and cried with them.

I pulled it together until I heard Larkin's stuffed Tad toy begin his learning time music. Tad was alone and my tears began again.

That is until Brin quickly crawled over to him, happy as a clam when she realized that big sister was not going to bonk her over the head for playing with him.

Laughing I turned into Erin and began our new first of morning with the twins, my heart, soul, spirit, and my loves, until the big girl comes home and we are complete.

Umma's Boy Theo

Cheryl Hovestadt, Berkley, MA

On March 26, 2005 God sent our family the most precious gift- my grandson Theo! He weighed only 3 and 1/2 lbs and from the first moment I looked at him he stole my heart! He had a battle to fight right from the start needing bowel surgery only a couple days old and heart surgery would follow within the next few weeks. He came through both like a trooper and showed us what a little fighter he was going to be! Don't ever give up Theo as we will never give up on you!

Only a few days after heart surgery and not even 4 lbs yet this little miracle was ready to come home and had the biggest smile on his face. You would have never known he had just gone through such an ordeal a few days before! It was that day that changed my life forever! I thought if this precious little soul can come through all of this already in his short life, there is nothing that I can't get through especially if he's there smiling at me! He makes my heart smile every day! Theo or as we sometimes call him "TT" continues to be our family's inspiration! His love is something that makes us all better people and his smile lights up a room and warms all our hearts like nothing else!

He attends school and is doing well and really likes his ride to school on the bus! He has a 3 yr old sister Zoe who he loves and his doggies Cooper and Bubba. He has wonderful parents who take such great care of him! His Nana lives with him also and he has many Aunts, Uncles and cousins who are all involved in his life and all love him very much! I'm Gramma but he calls me Umma, a name I will cherish forever as it's a special name one of God's little angels has given me! He likes to come over to Umma and Papa's house and we love it when he's with us! He likes to play ball with Papa and hide + seek with me and he loves Barney, we watch Barney shows with him but what he loves the most is music, any kind of music. He likes me to sing with him.

I know he will always teach us all more than we will ever teach him! I look forward to seeing him achieve all that I know he is going to! I just pray that God lets me see it all! I couldn't imagine my life with out this special, loving little guy in it! You Light Up My World Theo!

Love You, Your Umma- and Papa too! :) xoxo

Geraldine Gonzales

Joe Farley, Cheltenham, PA

It was April 4, 2004. Like the day I heard the news of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas; I remember exactly. It was a Saturday morning. I was leaving a customer's house from doing a plumbing estimate. I pulled over on City Ave. where ABC's Dave Roberts does front lawn weather reports.

"Joe, it's Pat, we have a new granddaughter. Shiela is fine, Joe, but the baby has some problems." There was a pause. I waited. Then the words, "She has Down syndrome." My very first reaction was a silent, "Why?"

Visions engulfed me.

They all looked alike, or so I always thought, but now I realized I never was really looking or paying attention. I did not know anything. From the first time I laid eyes on her, I felt connected. She had my heart just as fast as the ground would claim a falling anvil.

It was Gerry's second Christmas Eve when we learned that she had Acute Mycological Leukemia. She spent six months in Saint Christopher's Hospital undergoing chemotherapy treatment. She finally came home to the delight of her brothers, Vincent and Andrew, and soon after became big sister to Xavier. She continues her check ups and is still cancer free.

She expresses love in ways that you would only expect from the receiving arms of the Lord escorting you through the pearly gates. Yes, she can be heavenly bliss strumming music on your heartstrings when you come to visit her house or when she comes bursting into our living room, on the run with outstretched open arms. She is never embarrassed to hug too long or feel awkward about ending a conversation with her signature, "Stop It!" She is a walking, talking, firecracker at times. "Feist" is one of her endearing handles. It is short for Feisty. She is a learning machine, a love machine, a chipsaholic and a demanding Diva when she wants to be heard. She listens with her ears and her eyes. She can now sign the entire alphabet and even teach slow learners like her grandfather by twisting my fingers into shapes and sizes she can read.

Shiela, who is a champion rainbow maker and earth shaker herself, reports daily. Gerry attends a mainstream school with "typical" kids. Curbing great expectations was advised, but Ger knows none of that. She brings out the best in her schoolmates. Gerry is now involved in T ball, soccer and dancing classes. Her nickname is "Delight" or sometimes just "D." She is sunshine for us all. She loves to sing.

"What's new with Gerry?" I just asked Pat. What greatness can I write about her? Pat relates today's Geraldine report to me. Yesterday, Gerry and Iggy (Xavier) were eating their breakfast cereal. Igg laments "Oh darn it, there is no sunshine today!" Gerry immediately breaks into song, "Mister Sun, Sun, pretty golden Sun, won't you please shine down on me?" She warms us all!

My Amazing Niece

Nora Wegener, Bartlesville, OK

There are few people in this world that will leave their imprint on you for the rest of your life. That person for me is my niece, Teresa Marie Medvetz. Teresa's parents knew how critical it was to provide early intervention and the importance of mainstreaming Teresa through her formative years, not only for Teresa's sake, but also to educate the people who would be in Teresa's life about Down syndrome. Teresa had to overcome challenges in her life at an early age. At the age of 4 she was diagnosed with leukemia, within two months she went into remission, though she continued to be in and out of Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital during the next three years. There were uncertain times when it was unknown whether she would live. One bright spot for Teresa during this experience was a trip to Walt Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She enjoyed a special breakfast with her favorite Disney character, Cinderella. In 1995, Teresa was considered cured and today, at age 24, Teresa remains cancer free.

Teresa is part of a very large extended family. Teresa has more than the average number of aunts, uncles and cousins. There is a lot of love and respect that travels through this large family with Teresa being not only a taker, but a huge giver of that love and respect. Teresa's cousin, 17-year-old Hayden Shock said "Teresa taught me a lot of lessons in my life, even though we don't talk a lot she still taught me a really important part of my life that I had to do, respect people, no matter what. I love her!"

Hayden's first language is American Sign Language and Teresa is able to communicate with Hayden using ASL. At Hayden's mother's 50th birthday party, Teresa performed "Shout to the Lord" using ASL. Hayden recorded it and he was so proud of her performance he put it on YouTube for all to see. Please check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1v1gZ4G-_ls.

Teresa really enjoys music and likes to perform songs using ASL. She has performed with several signing groups. Spending time with friends and family is one of Teresa's favorite activities. She also loves to hold babies and in our large family there have been plenty of opportunities.

If you are fortunate enough to meet Teresa you will discover early on that she is quite articulate. A few years ago Teresa and I were engaged in a conversation that I will never forget. She was discussing her thoughts on being born with Down syndrome and how it affects her. She said "I know that I have Down syndrome. That is okay. I like myself and I know that God loves me for who I am." Teresa, to me, has it together and has taught us all what is really important in life and that is acceptance. Teresa not only accepts herself for who she is, she accepts others for who they are. What else is there to learn?

Our Adoption Story

Chas and Deb Nevsimal, Kewaskum, WI

We are in the process of adopting Gianna, who's been blessed with the gift of Down syndrome. We were with Gianna in the NICU for a week after she was born and in the PICU for five days when she, at five months, endured open-heart surgery to correct an AV canal defect, common among babies with Down syndrome. This surgery was necessary and lifesaving. Through it all, Gianna has been an inspiration to us and numerous others, and we're ready for whatever God hands us next. We want to share Gianna's story and her sweet little face with the world in an effort to raise Down syndrome awareness and demonstrate what a true gift those with Down syndrome are to everyone who knows them.

Our adoption was divinely inspired: Having tried more than four years to conceive, we decided to look into adopting. A week and a half after making that decision, we received a phone call from someone who'd been praying on our behalf, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, at the time still in Milwaukee. He called to check in with us, as he did every so often. That is when we told him we were considering adoption. The next day he called again to ask if we'd consider adopting a child with Down syndrome, because it turned out moments after he learned we were going to seek an adoption he very next call he made was to a family who'd decided to give their child up for adoption. God's providence was clearly at work, and the Archbishop discerned that it was God's will to bring us together with Gianna's birthfamily.

Still four months pregnant, Gianna's birthmother was urged by her ultrasound doctor to have an abortion, despite her strong pro-life views and a chart that read "No termination!" He never mentioned adoption as an option. Our hearts break thinking Gianna might not have had the chance to grace this world with her gorgeous blue eyes had her mother not been so firmly pro-life. With five boys – one of whom has severe cerebral palsy and requires 24-hour care – another child with special needs was too much for her family, but they thought perhaps this baby could be a blessing for somebody else. We were that somebody else, and Gianna is most certainly the greatest blessing we have ever received. And ours is an open adoption, which means Gianna's birthfamily will continue to play a role in her life, and she in theirs.

The Up Side of Downs

Evelyn Davis, Wichita, TX

My Son Braedan, was born with Down syndrome 4 years ago. We werent aware he had Down syndrome until after birth, which meant we had no way to prepare. So we just rolled with punches. Despite having several complications after birth including: meconium aspiration, RSV, and open heart surgery to repair his VSD- which is a hole in the membrane of the heart- he made it through all of those life threatening ordeals because I believe he is a sweet, loving, determined litle boy who was sent to me and our family from the Great Lord above to teach us how to over come life's struggles through love and determination to make it.

He has finished his first year of school; Pre-K and is now a Kindergardener! He started school not even walking, he spoke only a few words and signed very few signs. As of now he knows and signs, tries to pronounce all of his colors, he is starting to count and is still in the process of learning more signs. He also just ended his first season of playing teeball for the Miracle League with our local town, he had so much fun and made alot of new friends!

Braedan also participated in his first Special Olympics Event called Young Athletes, it was very busy with a lot of people, but he still enjoyed himself. My son has accomplished so much it surprises me that he is 4 and I look back to all his baby pictures and see how much he has developed. I thank God for choosing me and my family to be blessed with such a wonderful little boy who is definitely full of life. All people with special needs are angels in disguise. It's not always easy to handle the obstacles that come along with having Down syndrome, but it's well worth it to see and enjoy the positives. I encourage everyone I know to become an advocate for people with Down syndrome, and all disabilities.

All This Possible

Dawn Termini, Little Egg Harbor, NJ

My story is about my son Matthew Tolbert. Matthew was born with Down syndrome and has over come many obstacles in his life. But he never stops amazing me. I am so very proud of the things that he has accopmplished in his life. When Matthew was 5 months old he had open heart surgery to repair a very large hole in his heart. Two times before his surgery he went into congestive heart failure and they had to remove several CC's of fluid from around his heart. After his heart surgery he had 8 mini strokes and become dependant on the ventilator.

Every year up until the age of 12 he was in the hospital with pneumonia in October. Matthew has also had his ear drum reconstructed due to numerous times of having tubes but in his ear because of ear infections. He wears a hearing aid in one ear and is completely deaf in the ear that had recostructive eardrum surgery. But yet he keeps going.

Matthew started the Early Intervention Program when he was 2 weeks old. There he received his physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. He continued through his school years with his therapies. In the year 2007 he didn't graduate but was able to walk in the graduation ceremony with his class. At the age of 21, Matthew received his High School Diploma. I couldn't be more proud of him.

During his school Matthew as very involved with the Green House and took care of the plants, plus sold them to the community. This is his passion. Working with plants. He has a real green thumb. Matthew works with the school television program too everyday. He did the local weather that was broadcasted on television in our area. He holds a part-time job at Home Depot where he has been working for 5 years now. He's a lot attendant and is responsible for keeping the lot clean and moving the shopping carts around. He hopes this summer that they will move him into the Garden Center where his real passion is. Matthew also volunteers at our local Hospital as a transport assistant. He transports patients, machines and blood products around the hospital. This he does two times a week.

Matthew is also very involved with our local community events for persons with Disabilities and Brain Damage. He's aware of his Down syndrome and will share with anyone that asks about it what it's like to live with Down syndrome. He's VERY popular in and around our town.

Kamdyn

Tricia Dutterer, Hanover, PA

Kamdyn was born April 27 via C-section. I remember asking over and over again if Kamdyn was ok. At first, no one answered, and I asked again. I know now that they all knew she had Down syndrome. They assured me she was ok. But they didn't mention Down syndrome. During those days in the hospital, and back to the hospital for jaundice, I could not allow myself to believe that it was true. I didn't really do much crying in the hospital, because I had myself convinced that it was a mistake.

Then, we were finally home for good. Everything started to sink in. I began to feel like someone had taken my baby and replaced her with a new one. This wasn't what I had dreamed of. All I wanted was to go back to the morning of April 27 when everything was ok, when life was simple. I longed for that day when I was still pregnant and didn't have think about things like Down syndrome. I lay in bed, cried and slept for those two days. My motherly, caretaker instinct was there, but I just couldn't get past the Down syndrome. All I could see was a possible diagnosis, not my baby. Those days were agonizing, full of pain. My heart was broken.

At a follow up appointment for the jaundice, the doctor told us that Kamdyn's kareotype was in. "She has Trisomy 21," he said as he placed some tissues on the exam table right in front of me. "But it's not your fault," he said. I cried for the whole 30 minute drive home. But at the same time, it felt like a dark cloud had been lifted. And there is nothing to do but move forward. I started to be able to see a future that could be happy. Maybe this wasn't what I had imagined, but this was the same baby that I had carried inside me for 8 months, whose soft, gentle kicks reminded me that she was there. This was the baby that I wanted so badly. From the moment I knew she was here, I loved her. None of that has changed. Kamdyn was my baby. It was a defining time in my life.

My broken heart started to heal. It was broken so that God could fill it in with what was missing and then put it back together. It was now filled with unconditional love. I knew she was mine. And I was in love.

I slowly started to realize that things don't have to be what you thought to be perfect. It can be perfect, because you make it perfect. Perfectly full of love, life, hope, and peace. Knowing that all is well.

Born to Entertain

Cindy Stodden, Omaha, NE

Leah Stodden was born to entertain and inspire.

Playing piano has been a passion of Leah's since the tender age of six. She began performing locally in piano recitals and competitions, and also at conventions for both the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Down Syndrome Congress. Her performances have given her many opportunities to travel throughout the United States, including the cities of Chicago, Denver, St. Louis and Detroit, among others.

Leah's list of accomplishments is an impressive one. She has been featured in various magazines, newspapers and books for her musical talents. In November of 2007, Leah was crowned Nebraska "Miss Amazing Miss 2007-2008". This was a beauty and talent pageant for young women with special needs in which Leah was selected to represent Nebraska at various events throughout the year. When she was in high school, she was asked by an international talent and modeling scout to compete in a modeling convention in Orlando, Florida. Leah competed in several categories, including Runway, Photography, Teen Commercial, Talent, and Group Runway. After 3 days of competition, Leah was chosen as one of the finalists. The most exciting part of this experience was that this was not an event for individuals with disabilities, but rather a competition including 700 non-handicapped potential "super-models."

In the summer of 2003, Leah was selected to audition for a television mini-series. This became very exciting, as she made it into the top 3 candidates for this role. Leah's passion for entertaining does not stop there, as she also auditioned for CBS Talent Executives in Los Angeles, California.

Leah Stodden strives to "make a difference" through her example. She hopes to be an inspiration to others, as she continues to do what she loves most - entertain. Her dream is to be a television actress or movie star. Life for Leah has been filled with exciting opportunities and she has eagerly stepped up to every challenge. She plans to continue this enthusiasm for living as she follows her life journey and looks forward to every new experience that comes her way.

Hannah Montana

Kristi Newbold, Bloomington, IL

On last Wednesday I went to the Hannah Montana concert and I went with my mom and my 2 best friends, Wendy and Kirsten. First, my mom and I went shopping. It was inside at the concert and she got me a Miley Cyrus key chain and a Miley Cyrus sweatshirt jacket. I also got a T-shirt with Miley Cyrus on it and a Miley Cyrus program. We went to the photo booth and I got my picture taken with Miley on stage and I pretended to use a pretend microphone by doing a pose. Kirsten got her picture taken with Miley on stage, too. We had a great time at the concert. I think Miley sings really good and I love her music. I love the way she sings and I thought her singing was really beautiful. My favorite song she sings is called "See You Again." My Next favorite song she sings is called "GNO" (Girl's Night out). I have a New CD of Miley Cyrus called "The Time of Our Lives." My next favorite song is called "Party in the USA". Miley talked about her movie. It is called "The Last Song." When she sings "When I look at you" she is telling her fans about her new movie. She also sings "Kicking and Screaming". I remember when she sang her song called "Breakout" at her concert.

Another song is called "Simple song". I love the way she sings. She also sings "These four walls". I thought her song is beautiful. Her other song she sings called "Fly on the wall". It was a great song that Miley sings. Also she sings "Bottom of the ocean". That song was beautiful too. When Miley came back on stage again she sang "Let's Get Crazy".

That was my favorite song ever at the end of the concert. When Miley sang "The Climb" I was standing up with my best friend Kirsten. We were both singing. I remember Miley sang "Hoedown Throw down". I bet Miley did a great job with her singing at St. Louis. I really love supporting Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. It really means a lot to her since I got her letter in the mail that was in my bedroom at home.

Playing to Strengths

Stephen Hawley, Florence, MA

When Alice was born, she had a stroke that badly affected her right side. She was already likely to have issues from low muscle tone, which is common in people with Down syndrome. The stroke would just make things more challenging.

At eight months, Alice surprised us. She said, "up". She loved the word "up". "Up, up, up, up!" It was wonderful. We had a belief that she had a gift in language. While there is also a consistency in kids with Down syndrome being speech delayed, speech is not language. Functional MRIs done by researchers has shown that while related, they are in different parts of the brain. Alice's Early Intervention case manager suggested getting a speech therapist on board and pulled some strings to get one the better ones who also has a child with Down syndrome.

While we didn't always agree with her methods, she did a number of things that had terrific results. She lent us two videos of a TV show called Signing Time. Alice was immediately drawn in and loved watching every minute. It wasn't long after that I was getting ready to go to work and I tickled her for good measure before I left. She signed 'more'. In seeing Alice's strength, we worked it hard. We learned a form of sign language called Pidgin Signed English, which is ASL signs in English word order. We spoke but we signed too. We used Sign Language as a kinesthetic highlighter to our speech.

The result was that we started to see into her mind. She told me that her uncle was in the backyard with a pig. Wow!

And so it's no surprise that we became huge fans of Rachel Coleman, co-creator and star of Signing Time. How could we not? Her work helped jump start Alice's communication. When Alice started preschool, she had age-appropriate vocabulary, just not spoken.

This past weekend, we went to the 2010 Massachusetts Buddy Walk. Mostly because Rachel Coleman was going to be performing before the walk. Alice didn't sleep well the night before and was super cranky the whole day. That all went away when Alice saw Rachel and Hopkins (Hopkins is a frog who helps teach the signs in the show). She beamed and wanted to go running up ahead of everyone else. It was terrific to see Alice and Rachel and Hopkins. I gave Rachel a great big hug and thanked her for everything that she has done.

When Rachel did her stage show, she picked Alice along with other kids to help her sing her song Colors of the Rainbow. Alice eagerly went up on stage and did a great job signing. I didn't know whether to smile or cry. Maybe those are the best moments.

My Cheerleader

Penny Pescosolido, Lima, OH

I am very excited that my daughter, Kara, has been chosen to be part of the video for the New York City Buddy Walk. Kara is an amazing girl and always wants to be part of what's going on around her. Kara has been a cheerleader in a public school for five years. Unfortunately, she didn't make it this year but will be part of the cheerleading spirit team. She is so excited and practices her cheers everyday. She is very fortunate to have lots of friends that support her and encourage her to be a part of their team. Kara has attended public school since kindergarten and is part of the inclusion program. We are very proud of our daughter and we are excited that she can show others that her disability doesn't stand in her way.

Michael's Victories

Mary Wasserman, Aptos, CA

Michael's Great Story is all about determination. After his birth in 1961, doctors said, "He has no future. He will never walk or talk, and probably wouldn't live more than a few years." Fast forward to 1983 ... the doctors' bleak prediction never came true. However, Michael's happy and productive life came to a stand still after he lost the use of his legs due to bilateral hip dysplasia.

Several orthopedic specialists advised, "Put him to bed, give him lots of love, he will never walk again." In 1985 Michael underwent experimental bilateral hip reconstruction that really promised nothing. After surgical events, many months in a body cast and seventeen months of five-days-a-week physical therapy Michael responded by walking, dancing and returning to Special Olympics winning yet another medal in 1987.

Michael's remarkable recovery was thought to be a temporary fix that would last only a few years. Long term results were unknown at the time. Somehow, Michael managed to stretch his temporary fix to last twenty-four years. At age 48, Michael is now adapting to life in a wheelchair. Although he won't have a second miracle hip reconstruction, he doesn't intend to slow down. Whatever the obstacle, Michael's personal resolve has always helped him overcome it.

Michael's life has been one of active participation in the world around him. He contributed countless hours of volunteer work at nursing homes, senior centers, food outreach programs and the National Council of Jewish Women. In 2001, the NCJW presented Michael with a Volunteer Excellence Award in recognition of his exceptional accomplishments.

Prior to retiring on the Central Coast of CA with his parents, as St. Louis Arc Community Ambassador; Michael readily shared his life experiences, frequently making himself available for organizations ranging from The United Way to presentations at various college campuses. In 2009, only two years after his transition to his new life in CA, Michael was named Client of the Year by HOPE Services.

Art, music and ocean life are Michael's primary interests. Four of his paintings have sold at auction with proceeds benefitting St. Louis United Way and HOPE Services of CA.
The past 48 years have proven that a caring community can have a remarkable impact on the life of one person. Perhaps more importantly, it has also proven that one person, like Michael, can have a remarkable impact on a community.

Michael is proud to be included in the 2010 Buddy Walk Times Square Video.

Buddy Walk Salsa

Amy Bockerstette, Fort Wayne, IN

My daughter, Amy, is a 4th year student and has attended Three Rivers Montessori School since kindergarten. Every month, the elementary students engage in a different service project. In October, the school celebrated Down Syndrome Awareness Month and the elementary class decided to raise money for our local Buddy Walk®, which is sponsored by the Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana (DSANI). Amy's teacher, Jennifer Darmogray, organized a school-wide salsa sale and the school sold $1 footprints for students to sign and post around the school's halls. Our family has always felt embraced by the school's staff and families, but last year we were overwhelmed by their outpouring of support. To prepare for the sale, Three Rivers' families donated tomatoes, onions, cilantro, peppers and jars for canning. Then, with the help of parents and teachers, the elementary and kindergarten students chopped and mixed ingredients to create the salsa. The class made salsa because it is Amy's favorite snack and something the students could easily make. The students made flyers and signs to promote the sale and waved the signs, took pre-orders and sold jars in the school's car pool line. Selling the footprints provided another way for everyone at school to become involved and visibly show support.

The elementary class also participated on Amy's Buddy Walk® fundraising team, Amy's Village. We chose the name Amy's Village because we believe that it really does take a village to raise a child. Three Rivers Montessori uses a family-centered educational approach, and our entire family feels the school community's support and acceptance and that sense of belonging to a village.

Between the footprint and salsa sales, Three Rivers Montessori School raised $600, which the Elementary students presented to me on behalf of DSANI in a special ceremony the day before the Buddy Walk®. I felt like a sweepstakes winner!

Despite the threat of rain and very chilly weather at the Buddy Walk®, our hearts were warmed. We were joined by almost all of Amy's classmates and their families, along with several school staff and other friends, about 40 people! We had "Amy's Village" buttons made with Amy's picture, which Amy proudly gave everyone to wear. All told, Amy's Village raised an amazing $3,800 and her team was the 2nd place fundraising team for DSANI!

The Buddy Walk is such a wonderful opportunity to celebrate people with Down syndrome. It was meaningful for us to share that experience with our school family.

Buddy Choir

Lori Maloney Young, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

My daughter Maddie inspires me to use my gifts to build a community that includes all.

In 2007 I attended the Canadian Down Syndrome Society annual conference. One of the sessions was about a choir in Saskatchewan that included children with various disabilities. I loved the concept of putting ourselves out there and performing, but wanted to also capture the message of inclusion.

In September 2007 my Buddy Choir was born. The choir is sponsored by the Waterloo Regional Down Syndrome Society. We are an inclusive company who invite anyone to join. The only requirement is that you love to perform. We present productions numbers to the public to show that everyone can shine and when we all shine together it is magic! Our hope is that life will imitate art where all are included regardless of skin, intellect, talent or years. We are the change we want to see in the world. Our youngest member is 5 and our oldest is about 55. Participants are people with Down syndrome, family, friends and anyone else who wants to join.

Our first performance was at our Buddy Walk in November 2008. Since then we have performed at every Buddy Walk since and we lead Christmas carols at our annual Christmas party. We have also performed at fundraisers, church functions and conferences.

Over the past three years our choir has grown into a truly diverse and wonderful collection of people who all want to share the message of inclusion by sharing our gift of performing. We are thirty strong and growing by leaps and bounds.

This past year I attended another Canadian Down Syndrome Society Conference where I was introduced to an inclusive high school band – The Best Buddies Blues Band. Talk about another inspiration!

This year our Buddy Choir will be performing some great songs – Don't Stop Believin; We're All in this Together; Edelweiss; Shed a Little Light and True Colours. We look forward to sharing our message within these songs.

It gets pretty cold in Waterloo Region in the winter and some nights the only reason that I am not tucked in my house on rehearsal nights is that I lead this choir. Within five minutes of getting to rehearsal I am warm inside and filling with energy. The energy that The Buddy Choir gives me cannot be replaced. It is a free, safe space that brings all people together who have a common passion.

My Precious Gift

Luz Apolayo, Panama City, Panama

This is my great story about rediscovering life and the power of love. My son Ariel Moisés was diagnosed with Down syndrome even before he was born almost eight years ago. Being a single mom has not been easy at all but I have been learning and exploring all aspects of Down syndrome with the help and inspiration of many who have been there before us. Unfortunately, we live in Panama City, Panama, Central America, where being a person with a disability is almost a curse but I am always looking ahead, at people in places like the United States and Spain where you have conquered so much for our children. You are my north and my model.

On the other hand, God chose me to be Ariel Moisés mother so I have been very active in educating others about his condition and making great effort to make people understand he is just another boy with different abilities who needs more help than the average kid. I also promote the rights for people with disabilities and do not settle for less. We have also been blessed with wonderful friends, doctors and family who help us keep focused, obtain new achievements and set new goals.

Ariel Moisés is a handsome boy who is very loving but also very determined and strong willed. In 2006, when my son was 4, I found out about the Buddy Walk so I decided to enter the photo contest for the Times Square video. To our great surprise two of the three photos sent were selected, one for the video and another for the new NDSS website. Ariel and I could not afford the trip to New York but my supervisor convinced me to send a letter to the first lady of Panama and her office paid for our trip to the Big Apple. Ariel was the first Panamanian to participate in the contest and to appear in the video so we packed and flew to NYC where I was invited to deliver a short speech just before the Buddy Walk at Central Park.

It was an extraordinary experience, to see all those families participate in the walk in support of their children and relatives. What a tremendous and powerful opportunity we had that day! Time passed and I did not participate in the photo contest until this year and it happened again! Ariel's photo was selected for the Times Square video! I am so proud of my boy and although we cannot afford to make it this year, I still feel we are contributing to the cause from our little spot on planet Earth.

I also have a dream, like Dr. King said that our children are treated with equal respect and opportunities in my country. In the meantime, I will continue educating our society and enjoying the life and love of my precious gift from heaven.

Finding the Treasure

Kelli Webber, Baton Rouge, LA

My name is Kelli Webber, and I work in the Office of Orientation at Louisiana State University. I am also the proud advisor of the LSU Ambassadors, a student organization on campus whose mission is to recruit, orient and advise incoming students. All of my students were able to share my pregnancy with me, and I knew that my son would always have a special place in their hearts. However, I could have never have imagined the special gift they would give our family.

While I was on maternity leave, my students made a video for me to watch. As the video played, I was greeted by several of my students sending us well wishes, saying how much they missed me, and talking about how excited they were to meet Parish. Each message touched my heart immensely. I was flabbergasted at the amount of time they had spent on this video - time away from so many other commitments they had, time they made for our family and our new son. At the end of each clip, each Ambassador said, "We are finding the treasure in each Parish." I thought that was such a sweet play on his name, and I giggled at their creativity.

However, at the end of the video, an even more special gift was revealed. All the while, I simply assumed that, "We are finding the treasure in each Parish" was a cute tag line they created for the video, but I could have never imagined the deeper, more meaningful significance of those words. At the end of the video, it was explained that each of my students had reached out to their friends and families all over the state of Louisiana to raise funds for the National Down Syndrome Society in Parish's name. Hence finding "treasure" in each parish. They even created a T-shirt to sell in order to raise even more funds in Parish's name. Their plan was to wear those shirts as they participated in the National Down Syndrome Society's Buddy Walk® in Baton Rouge on October 4, 2008. As I listened to them explain what their plans were, tears welled up in my eyes and streamed down my face. My heart became so full that I thought it would explode in my chest. I could not believe that these students had taken the time and gone to such great lengths to do something like this for my family, for my Parish. Even now as I type this I am overwhelmed and humbled by their gesture. There are no words to express the gratitude that is in my heart.

You see, we were unaware of Parish's diagnosis until he was born. Parish was born with cataracts, thyroid issues and liver troubles. Truth be told, we had not had much time to even digest that he also had Down syndrome. But in one fell swoop, my LSU Ambassadors introduced us to an amazing community of support in our town. They gave a gift to our family that we will not soon forget.

The Monkey King

Ben Savill, Tustin, CA

One summer evening, at the age of 4 years and 9 months, Jaden Temple Savill climbed atop the play structure in our community park in Tustin, CA. He stood facing the "fire-fighter's sliding pole" and stared ahead. Something about his expression seemed different from usual. And then it happened. Jaden reached forward and seized the pole with one hand and then the other. I waited for his usual "Help me!", but it didn't come. Before I knew it, he had stretched out one leg and then the other, and was suspended on the pole eight feet above the ground. A moment later, he slowly and deliberately lowered himself down the pole, hand by hand, foot by foot, until he reached the ground.

Jaden looked up at me with a big smile. I smiled back, temporarily lost for words. Finally I said "Great job, Jaden!", and we hi-fived. My words seemed a very inadequate response to what had just taken place. This was way more than a great job. I had the feeling that I had just witnessed the unfolding of a giant evolutionary leap – like witnessing the first caterpillar climb out of its cocoon, spread out its wings and take to the air. It felt as if another line had just been added to the miraculous 14 billion-year story of the Universe.

While I was busy contemplating God and evolution, Jaden hurried back up the steps of the play structure to re-test his new-found wings. Sure enough, he precisely repeated his unassisted climb down the pole.

Jaden displayed a talent for climbing and hanging from heights at a very early age. My ineptitude for home improvement meant that I never got round to installing a safety gate at the top and bottom of our staircase. So from the moment Jaden started crawling at 10 months of age, he was clambering up and down the stairs. This may not have been good for his mother's heart, but it was great for the development of Jaden's strength, coordination, spatial planning, problem solving, self-confidence and courage!

When we enrolled Jaden in a gym class at the age of 2 years and 9 months, the other 12 children were all typical kids. Jaden may have lagged behind them at jumping, hopping and the balance beam, but he was the champion of the monkey bar. Not only could he hang from the bar for 10 seconds longer than the next best child, but he also quickly mastered the art of raising his feet up to the bar and hanging upside down.

We've now enrolled Jaden in Karate For All in the hope that he'll keep at least one foot on the ground! He loves karate and loves his teacher Sensei Wayne Centra. A few days before his 5th birthday, Jaden successfully completed his first karate test, and now proudly boasts a black stripe on his white belt.

My Son, My Inspiration

Pamela Garcia, Clementon, NJ

My son Gabriel came into my life in August 2004, and as a result changed my outlook on life forever. I was unaware of my son's diagnoses through my pregnancy and was told that he had a chromosomal abnormality within hours after his birth. I was in denial and felt sorry for myself. Why me? Why did this happen to me and my family? After confirming that my son had Down syndrome, I learned all that I could about his diagnosis. If I only knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself so much heartache.

Watching Gabriel through the last six years has inspired me in everything that I do in life. He was my third and last child. Watching Gabriel be challenged by his special needs has inspired me to overcome my challenges. I was a high school dropout and worked at a job that I had no gratification from. I felt I'd stay there forever because I did not know what I really wanted to do. Since Gabriel was born, I have received my GED and have completed over 30 college credits. I am working my way to obtain a Bachelor's Degree in Special Education. I once felt sorry for myself, wondering why my son was born with a disability. I now wonder what I must have done right to have Gabriel in my life.

We don't know what is in store for us with our children. They are all unique and different. There are no guarantees in life. Being a parent, one needs to handle all the responsibilities, regardless of a child's needs. Gabriel struggles to talk, but continues to try. I love his determination. This little boy has shown me more love in only four years that I think I have ever felt in all of my life. He spreads sunshine everywhere he goes. He is special in his own way. He has challenges, just as all human beings do. I have learned so much about what it means to be a mother from Gabriel.

My Son, My inspiration

He is my son my greatest inspiration

He taught me life's lessons he is truly a gift from heaven

He taught me to keep trying and never give up

He taught me to be patient even when it was tough

He taught me to love unconditionally, despite that he has a disability

Mother of a special child,

Pamela Garcia

Frankie's Garden

Karla Cyr, Cross Lake Twp, ME

I looked at my garden last year and wondered how I could honor my uncle, Frank Brescia, for living a divine life as a person with Down syndrome. Along a tree line, in front of a stone path, I spotted a perfect location. It faced a flowing stream of water that runs season after season, moving like life even long after death. I quickly got out my shovel, sorted through an array of rocks, untangled weeds and pruned back twigs to make way for Frankie's garden. Frankie loved flowers as much as I do. Although in referring to them he often said "B-E-E," as if somewhere in the petals hid a bumble bee. Frankie had always lived at home with his mother until he was twenty-seven, but shortly after her death he moved into my parents' home to live with his sister. I was six years old at the time and can vaguely remember that day. All I seem to recall is that a short, stout young man moved in and began living his life with our family. Frankie didn't settle into his bedroom quickly. I guess he thought he was visiting our home for a few days even though we told him, "This is your home from now on." He didn't seem easily convinced at first, but after two weeks of living out of his suitcase he decided to hang up his shirts and fill the empty dresser drawers. Over the weeks and months that followed we discovered that Frankie had many incredible gifts: he could write his name with someone guiding his hand; he could say short-syllabled words, particularly the names he gave us--calling "Weezle" to his sister, "Boss" to my father, "The Fonz" to my brother and "Karle" to me. He could also organize things like a fastidious butler, beat drums, sing Beatles tunes and wobble two spool-topped sticks we called "twiddle sticks" between his fingers. No one who knew Frankie could ever forget his "twiddle sticks." Every Christmas someone from the family had to buy him a new can of Tinker Toys. All he ever wanted were the green sticks and spools; everything else remained in the can. Like a virtuoso, Frankie had mastered the art of drumming his sticks, moving them fast and slow to the tempo of music. Our little earth angel flew home to heaven on November 5, 2008 after a battle with Alzheimer's Disease and other progressive illnesses. He was nearly fifty-nine years old. There is hardly a day now that we don't think of Frankie and say, "Do you remember when...?" And with every question the answer is always "yes." Frankie made an indelible mark on our lives. We believe he came to us as a messenger, conveying in his own way the importance of embracing life and shining bright. In a way, Frankie's memorial garden is doing the same—embracing warmth and nurturing buds into bloom just like Frankie did--the brightest flower in our lives.

A Pinch of Hope

Nicole Dupuis, Fort Wayne, IN

The following story was written three years ago by my 10 year old daughter, Brooke. She recalls the journey our family was on during my pregnancy and birth of her brother, Matthew, who is now nearly 4 years old. I could write a book on the wondrous ways he's impacted our lives, but it is so beautiful to see the world through the eyes of a child.

April 24, 2007

This story is dedicated to my baby brother, Matthew Phillip Dupuis. He inspired me to write this story because he has brought so many smiles, happiness and joy to our family.

In August 2007, my mom told me that we were going to have another brother or sister. We were so excited! My mom had an ultrasound. The doctor said that some things did not look good. He said that the baby would die before, during, or shortly after birth. My parents asked if he thought the baby had Down syndrome, and the doctor said no, it was much worse. When we got home from school, I knew that something went terribly wrong.

My parents told my brother and I the bad news. I was both sad and surprised at the same time. The test results were not coming back for about 4 days, so we spent the weekend praying and asking God for a miracle. Everyone was so sad, but I told my Mom and Dad that we just needed to have hope because God could make anything happen. My family decided we would name the baby Matthew, which means "Gift of the Lord God." So many people started praying for our family from all over the United States and Canada.

Finally, the results came back and the specialist called. He told my Mom that Matthew would live and only had Down syndrome. When we came home from school, my parents told us and I felt like the happiest girl in the world! The doctor said there was a chance that Matthew could be born with many problems, so we prayed a lot. We started getting letters from people we didn't even know telling us they were praying for our family.

Then on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2006 he was born...the great miracle of my baby brother Matthew! I was so happy and could not wait to see him. He was six weeks early, so he had to stay in the I.C.U. for two weeks. He was born without any big health problems. I know that all our prayers helped Matthew to be alive and healthy.

Even though he has Down syndrome, we still treat him the same way we would treat any other baby boy. People with Down syndrome may learn slower, but they can accomplish great things in the world. Many can live alone, have jobs and take care of themselves. We are so lucky to have Matthew in our lives. Without God's help and my little pinch of hope he might not be here today.

Quest for Kindergarten

Linda Elento, Kaneohe, HI

Last fall, our local news media described our quest to find a regular kindergarten for our son Jason. At the age of 7, Jason was considered by the public school to be too old to enter a regular kindergarten classroom and instead to be in need of a special education program, separated from "typically-developing" children.

On June 5, Wendell (Jason's dad) and I had the pleasure of watching Jason receive his kindergarten diploma at his new school, Hawaii Technology Academy. HTA is a public charter school, which means we choose to go to this school instead of the home-district school based on where we live.

Jason now attends regular first grade classes, which are designed to be small. He is making friends at HTA's Learning Center for partial days during the week. He also learns at home with me, his learning coach, while reading and using interactive lessons online and with DVDs repeatedly, hence the "Technology" in the name of his favorite new school.

Like many other children with Down syndrome, Jason shares a similar learning profile, including learning through repetition with a slower rate of progress.

He is highly responsive to music and benefits from small "regular" classes and breaks. I believe this school fits Jason and our family to a "T."

Thank you, My Great Story, for sharing our success story.

Inclusion

Colleen Bailey, Gladewater, TX

Once upon a time (a true story), my parents thought it would be cool to include me in a local Baby Contest. The judges for the newspaper gave me 3rd place and a star was born.

Then some nice people from the ARC in our county included my picture with my parents for a calendar fund-raiser. I liked our matching outfits and everyone knew us as the "orange family."

Around this time, the great people with AMBUCS included me on the cover of their magazine because they liked how I was learning to ride my new Amtryke.

My mom thought we were on a roll so she entered my picture in the National Down Syndrome Society's Times Square Video contest and those people up in New York really liked my golf swing picture. They must have thought I looked like Tiger Woods because they included my picture as one of the winners.

Well, what do you think happened next? Television reporters came to my house and asked me questions and took more pictures. One of the reporters was once in a beauty pageant and she was real, real pretty. The ABC and CBS stations included me on TV. They liked the picture and they liked hearing me identify most of the 100 Great Wonders of the World in the interview.

Since my Daddy is a project manager and builds churches, he teaches me things at the Lowe's Kids Clinics because that store includes me, too. We've built a tool box, a fire engine, a bird house, a miniature golf set and other cool stuff.

Mommy loves to read, so I help her read books to younger children at our Public Library. We also taught the kids some fun sign language words because that is how I used to communicate before I started talking. Some important people called the "Library Board" asked me to show how I memorized books so I got to read to them, too. I won 2nd place in the Summer Reading Program because I sat quietly while 122 books were read to me and then did hand-over-hand writing of the book titles with the Boy Scout who read to me. Inclusion is so much fun!

I sit very, very still at City Council meetings and then shake hands with the leaders of our town. It's important to be included even at my age. One of them wants me to recite the Pledge of Allegiance soon. I'll have to check my schedule.

My grandpa asked me to come up on stage at his church to recite all of Psalm 23. I liked the big microphone. And the audience liked what I said. I wasn't sure why they all cried but Mommy said it was because they were crying happy tears. God includes all of us, you know.

Inclusion is part of my socialization because I'm home-schooled and, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you...I am only five years old.

Advocate in Action

David Egan, Vienna, VA

I am an eager advocate for people with intellectual disabilities. Born in 1977 on the University of Wisconsin – Madison campus, I am the oldest of four children in the Egan family. For over a decade I have been a clerk in the Distribution Center at Booz Allen and Hamilton in McLean, Virginia, where I am treated as a full staff member with all of the related benefits and expectations. You can watch a video of my work filmed by NDSS (LAUNCH: Careers for People with Down Syndrome on YouTube). My CEO believes in inclusion, human dignity and employing people with disabilities. He says: "It is good for the individual, the company and the society at large." I was selected as the first ever Board Member of the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia (there are two of us right now). I also serve as a Board Member of Special Olympics Virginia and I am an honorary member of the Parents of Exceptional Children (POEC).

While I work during the day and keep busy with community activities, I also love athletics and enjoy competing in soccer, basketball, softball, swimming (specializing in the 100-meter individual medley), and even speed skating when I was younger. However, my current dream and passion is to win the hearts and open the minds of many, advocating for inclusion, dignity and respect in all aspects of life at the local, national and international levels.

I have received numerous awards such as the Heroes Award from Special Olympics International (2002), the Voices Award from the National Down Syndrome Society (2003) in New York City, the Virginia H. Foster Winning Spirit Award from Special Olympics Virginia (2006) and the Dan Piper Award from the National Down Syndrome Society in Vancouver, Canada (2006) at the 9th World Down Syndrome Congress.

I am thankful for being a naturally gifted communicator both in casual conversations and in more formal speaking engagements such as an invited keynote speaker at the National Down Syndrome Society conference in Washington, D.C. (2002), the World Congress held in Vancouver, Canada (2006), and the Affiliates in Action Conference in Arizona (2007). I speak at various fund-raising events, building awareness and thanking supporters for their involvement promoting the image and contributions of people with disabilities. I am also a published writer, including an article titled "Dare to Dream" in Spirit Magazine (2000) and the forward for my 6th grade teacher Rachelle Zola's book "Simple Successes" (2006). I have accepted numerous invitations to speak on Capitol Hill in support of people with disabilities in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and I dream of one day speaking, working (and perhaps playing basketball) at the White House.

The Performer

Houston Vandergriff, Powell, TN

William Shakespeare once said:

All the world's a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts...

I think I was born to be on stage! I love to play many parts. I try to perform in any and every way I can – dancing, acting, singing, modeling – you name it, I love it!

At the Passion Play of the Smokies in Townsend, Tennessee, I play a villager who meets Jesus. All of my family members are in the cast of the play, which is near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We do shows through the summer and fall.

This summer, a movie producer saw me performing at the Passion Play and cast me in a small part in his movie, Light, Streets of Redemption. It should be out in early 2010. I play a boy who can see an angel. It was fun getting to meet the other actors and working with the director and film crew.

My picture for last year's Buddy Walk® Times Square Video Presentation is from my performance in A Christmas Carol: The Musical that I did with the Southern Kids in Theater(SKIT). I played a party guest at Mr. Fezziwig's Christmas ball.

I take two different dance classes. One is for just kids with Down syndrome, and is called The Sunshine Ambassadors. We perform at our regional Buddy Walk®, the Dogwood Arts Festival, and other events around our area. Our special group shows everyone what kids with Down syndrome can do.

My other dance class is a boys dance class for jazz, tap, and ballet. I have been in the Nutcracker with the Oak Ridge Civic Ballet Association for the past three years. I have danced the part of a soldier and a party boy. This year we performed with a live orchestra and it was really special. One day, I hope to play the Mouse King, but I have to get a little bigger to fight the Nutcracker!

In this summer's production of Splash Kingdom I played the a soldier and did sign language to a special song. In The Story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, I play Ezekiel. We have performed this play several times throughout or region. My picture was on a billboard for a magazine advertisement, and I am soon going to be in a fashion show for Goodwill Industries.

I am signed with a talent agency, Talent Trek. Through them, I have done several cool things, including a photo shoot for a back-to-school fashion section. I also went to Nashville to film a commercial for the U.S. Armed forces that is being broadcast around the world. It is a public service announcement for military personnel to let them know about help that is available to them if they have kids with special needs.

Down syndrome has never gotten in my way, it has opened many doors.

Different Sneakers

Jessica Melville, Sandwich, MA

"What kind of sneakers is she going to have to wear?"

This was one of many questions that were going through my head. It is September 2003 and I just found out my daughter is going to be born with Down syndrome. I am only sixteen years old, just days away from my seventeenth birthday. I am a good student, sister, and shoe lover. (Hence the reason why sneaker choice would be one of my great fears about this baby's diagnosis.) I do not want to deal with Velcro versus ties or orthopedic shoes; I want to pick out the latest trends and styles for her. With this diagnosis, I am now faced with the challenge of redefining every goal and dream for my daughter. I am scared, naturally. My friends are all out celebrating senior year and here I am asking myself stupid questions. After a few agonizing days I realize, she is my child, I love her, and does it really matter what kind of shoes she has on?

It doesn't. This child isn't even born yet and she has already taught me a lesson. I no longer care about shoes and shopping; I just want my baby to live. I want her to be born healthy and be happy. So I make up my mind that just because she had Down syndrome, I don't have to give up all of my dreams for her. I can still buy her cool sneakers and shoes; we just might need to look harder for ones that offer support as well. A couple weeks go by and I am at the mall. I go into Finish Line and find a great pair of pink Nike crib shoes, so I buy them.

A month goes by and Jaylin is born, a healthy four pound, twelve ounce baby girl with a head full of black hair. She was born with a heart defect, but it gets corrected six months after birth. A little while after that, she begins wearing her pink Nikes. Most babies grow out of those kinds of shoes soon after birth, but not my little Jaybird. She rocked those shoes for a good couple of months.

These days Jaylin is doing well. She goes shoe shopping with me and her current pick is a multicolored pair of Nike high tops. I don't think she truly cares about shoes, but just enjoys spending the time with me picking them out. She teaches me and her teachers more than we teach her. I am so happy that I was blessed with her and that she changed my views on life. Had she not been born with DS I don't think I would be as good of a person as I am now. I currently organize a Buddy Walk® with some other moms and we use funds from the walk to donate care packages to families facing hospital stays due to complications of DS. Jaylin is almost six, and this year was our fifth Buddy Walk®. I started the walks in honor of her, and it is because of her that I can reach out to other families now.

Having a baby with Down syndrome made that seventeen year old me grow up fast, but strong in moral and good faith. Jaylin is such a special child. She takes her time when most of us want her to rush and she is always the one smiling when everyone else is melting down. She will not let the world define her. She will keep doing what she loves...in great shoes...just to make me happy.

Lauren's Sleepover

Eileen Borenstein, Oreland, PA

Our five-year old granddaughter, Lauren Marie Borenstein, who has Down syndrome, wanted to sleep over for the night at Grammy and Pop-pop's house. We were not so sure that in the middle of the night she wouldn't be crying that she wanted to go home. So, with some trepidation, we decided to try it.

The day of the sleepover we had such a wonderful time together. We danced, played dress-up and just had a joyful time together. This was the very first time Lauren had spent the entire time with just her Grammy and Pop-pop. Every so often we exchanged hugs and kisses. At one point, while sitting in her Pop-pop's lap, she cuddled up and took a short nap.

Before dinner, we all watched a Raffi children's concert. We watched as Lauren danced along with the children in the audience. She loves music and movement with her whole heart, and it filled us with joy just to watch her.

At one point after the concert, she looked sad. When I asked her if she missed her mommy, she said yes. I, her Grammy, thought "Oh, oh, just as I thought; we may not make it through the sleepover." How wrong I was! After a short, reassuring conversation with her mom, she was all revved up to hang out with us for her overnight.

After dinner, a playful bath with her favorite Barbie, and a story, it was bedtime.
Lauren's ability to just enjoy the moment, her pride in herself and her sense of fun and joy were awesome for us to see. Now, let's see if going to bed will work.

Immediately after tucking her in, she jumped out of bed. Again, "oh, oh" went through my mind. Was I surprised and warmed to my toes with what she did next. She had spotted her older brother Daniel's pillow, that he uses for his sleepovers. She brought it to bed with her, cuddled up to it, and fell fast asleep.

First thing in the morning (5 am!) I heard a little something. On my way to Lauren's room, I found her at my dressing table: she was smiling at herself in the mirror and putting on jewelry. When we saw eachother, we both grinned ear to ear. "Hi, Grammy" she said.

Little did we know how joyful and determined she is. We are her proud Grandparents.

Starring James Walker

James Walker, El Paso, IL

Hi! My Name is James Robert Walker and I am 19 years old. I live in El Paso, Illinois with my family. I graduated from Normal West High School in 2009. I work at Four Seasons Recreation Club where I do many different things like clean the workout machines, fold towels, greet guests and many other exciting things. My Great Story is about me being in the musical, Annie. I hope you enjoy it!

In the musical Annie, I was Rooster. He was a very mean guy to the orphans. Ms. Hannigan and Rooster teamed up together against the orphans who were playing tricks on them. This made playing my character a lot more fun because I had to act differently then I do in real life. I had to learn my lines and sing many different songs. My favorite songs to sing in Annie was "Easy Street" and "Anything About You" because the characters in the musical were all happy when singing those songs. My two favorite characters in the musical were Annie and Warbucks. Here is a little summary of what the musical Annie is about.

The musical Annie is about a young girl who is an orphan. An orphan is someone who does not have any parents. Annie is a nice girl who wants to get adopted. She lives in an orphanage with a lot of other girls and they cause a lot of trouble by playing jokes on Ms. Hannigan. She causes some trouble along the way before Daddy Warbucks comes along. Annie gets to live a life full of love and money until...You will have to watch the musical to see what happens next!

Being Rooster in the musical Annie was something that I wish I could do again. Everyone in the cast was very nice and we had a lot of fun together. We practiced everyday after school for a couple of months. It was a lot of had work but so much fun at the same time. I plan on being in other musicals in the future with the same group of people because everyone was very nice and helped me learn my lines and songs. I can't wait to see what musical I will be in next!

My Special Brother

Kristen Behrens, Glastonbury, CT

Michael, you remind me every day not to follow the crowd and that it's ok to be different.

On the corner of my desk is the picture of my brother Michael walking up to us on his graduation day. We were all facing the procession of students, waiting for the last names that start with "B" to file out at the closing ceremony. But Michael wasn't there. He cut out of the line and came up to us from behind because he wanted to be with us, not waiting in line.

That picture inspires me not only because Michael graduated and had (of course, I'm biased) the LOUDEST roar of applause on that dusky summer evening. Michael sat in the same row I sat in three years prior awaiting his diploma. Only he doesn't realize how much he taught me, and not the other way around. When Michael was born I learned that I had a "special brother." That meant nothing to me – isn't every brother special?

Michael and I have always enjoyed the same things – swimming, movies, riding in the car and singing at the top of our lungs and most of all doing the "mom/dad" dance imitation (sorry Mom!). Michael's love for life and those around him is beyond most people's understanding of care. He is an exceptional person and that has nothing to do with him being special.

Michael is the athlete – he takes on any challenge – in life and in the pool. I can remember one instance at Special Olympics... Michael and I worked on his dive for weeks and we were both excited for him to compete. As I sat in the hot bleachers I looked down on the pool deck only to see that Michael's competition was much taller than him. Michael approached the side of the pool for the start and looked up at my family and me with that unmistakable look of "YIKES!" I can remember nodding toward him, hoping he knew to follow our motto of "get out there, and do your best." He did. He won.

While not every challenge Michael has come across was an instant win, we have learned to forge the road together, as a family. Michael continues to be the one person I love to brag about, from the time he walked across that stage for his high school diploma to the day he started his position as a teacher's assistant to help those less fortunate than him.

Michael has taught me that no matter what I do, I should try my best and never be sorry for that. He has reminded me that even when others are cruel, we must consider their feelings as well. Michael, you are a true blessing and you totally rock. From your biggest fan and sister, I love you.

I Did It!

Michael Peoples, Fort Wayne, IN

Michael Peoples' parents and three siblings love to scuba dive and he dreamed of joining them. By 9 years old, he was an exceptional swimmer and a good listener in the pool. Although Michael will never be a certified diver, his parents spoke with the staff at Don Foster's dive operation in Grand Cayman, about what experiences could be possible. Don Foster's started him in scuba lessons with a wonderful and highly experienced PADI Instructor named Polly Cox. Polly had experience teaching individuals with other disabilities to scuba dive but Michael was the first person she worked with who had a cognitive delay.

Every summer for the next 5 years in the dive center's pool, Michael spent several days learning the skills, each year reviewing what he had learned and building on that with new skills. He learned the equipment, how to operate it, and safety measures. Sometimes Polly adapted the training just for Michael's level and understanding. By the time he was 14 years old, Polly, and Michael, believed that he was ready for an actual ocean dive. The next day, Michael, along with Polly and his family, jumped off a dive boat dive into the ocean. Jumping into the open ocean with all the gear on was a little scary for Michael, but with Polly constantly at his side, he successfully completed his first ocean dive!

Michael's second dive, however, was truly incredible. Instead of using a boat, the plan was to go down a ladder at the boat pier and descend into about 15 feet of water. Everything went perfectly. Polly, staying right at Michael's side, led him and his family out to the nearby reef. While exploring the reef in 27 feet of water, Michael suddenly signaled a problem with his mask. Polly signaled back for him to clear it. He cleared it but then later signaled the problem again. The seal around his prescription dive mask lens had blown out and his mask was completely flooded with water! Michael signaled that he wanted to go up. Polly signaled "No! Stay with me!" Even though they had a floating "Divers Below" flag above them, Polly wanted to make sure that they surfaced away from any boat dangers on the surface.

According to Polly, even though scuba training teaches new divers how to deal with flooded masks, many beginners panic the first time water fills their mask while on an actual dive and not in the practice pool. Michael wasn't like many beginner divers, though. He didn't panic. He did exactly what he learned to do during his years of training. He stayed calm, thought it through, and followed Polly's instructions. Polly gradually led Michael to shallower water in an area with no boat traffic. The group surfaced and swam together back to shore for a celebration of Michael's amazing accomplishment!

Every summer, Michael continues his scuba diving training and practice in the dive center's pool preparing for the moment when he's ready to jump back in ocean again...maybe this year!

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