With a little help from their friends

Second annual Buddy Walk brings unity, visibility to Collier County Down syndrome community

As any parent knows, when your child’s favorite stuffed toy falls to the ground you have just moments to grab it and get it back in the stroller before the full-on wailing erupts.

On Saturday, as a stuffed bunny hit the ground, a complete stranger whisked it up and back into the nearby stroller in just milliseconds. The soft beginnings of a whimper were stopped before they even started.

Nearby, a tired mom pulling a fully loaded wagon paused for a break. In seconds, a friend had offered to take a pull, and they were back on their way.

At Saturday’s second annual Buddy Walk, everyone was your buddy. The walk, which raises awareness for Down syndrome, was more than 1,000 strong, and while many of the participants didn’t actually know each other, everyone helped each other out.

Unlike the Race for the Cure or other timed charity races, the Buddy Walk is very much a team event — much like raising a child with Down syndrome is.

“I’m lucky, I have the support of my friends and family,” said Kristin Risch, adding, “you really need that support.”

Risch is the mother of 6-year-old Josie Risch, who suffers from Down syndrome. Though raising a daughter with Down syndrome can be trying at times, Risch has found that she draws a lot of her strength from watching Josie.

“If she can do and overcome the things she has to do, I know that I can do it too,” said Risch.

On team “Steven’s Guys,” friends, family, teachers and even a former principal came out to walk in support of 13-year-old Steven Newell. Mother Becky Newell offered these words for new parents dealing with Down syndrome, “If there is one message I could give, it would be that having a child with Down syndrome is not a tragedy.”

Around North Collier Regional Park, families practically bursting with love for their children proved this statement over, and over, and over again. In fact, the only tragedy that any of the families walking reported was a real lack of services and resources for their children, something they hoped Saturday’s event would draw attention to.

The walk itself is an advocacy event, with a mission statement of promoting acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome. But the event also raises funds for scholarships for citizens with Down syndrome. These scholarships help pay registration fees for programs like movie nights and arts and craft camps offered by the Collier County Parks and Recreation department.

But even with these programs in place, there’s still more work to be done.

“I wish there was more stuff available here,” said Risch, lamenting the lack of services for her daughter, adding, “it’s not very easy to find things, you really have to dig.”

Mia Bratt, a special education teacher at Sea Gate Elementary School, agreed that finding resources can be difficult. “I do think there are resources here,” she said. “But I don’t think they’re easy to find. You really have to seek them out.”

Local mom Mary Schelling knows a thing or two about seeking out resources for her daughter, Dana. Schelling has had to go so far as to hire legal counsel to ensure her daughter gets the education she needs from Collier County Public Schools. “Let’s just say you have to push and fight for everything,” she said of her trials and tribulations of getting her daughter access to quality education.

But Saturday’s walk was less about the trials and more about the triumphs. Many parents used the 1.9-mile stroll to network, meet other families and share stories of their children’s successes.

“It’s great to meet all the other families,” said Dan Shelling, the father of 8-year-old Dana Shelling. “You don’t really realize until you get everyone together that there are so many special needs kids here.”

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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