Author: Rose Phillips, ds-connex team member
Buddy Walk Date: Sunday, October 19th, 2014
Who: Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta (DSAA)
Location: Centennial Park
Buddy Walk website: www.ds-stride.org/atlantabuddywalk
DSAA website: www.dsaatl.org
The Atlanta Buddy Walk® is one of the most eagerly-anticipated yearly events for members of the Down syndrome community all over the state of Georgia. Larger even than the Flagship Buddy Walk® in New York City, Atlanta’s event drew 3,500 walkers last year, and this year they’re aiming for 4,000. People planning their wedding often call the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta before the walk date is published, making sure their special day doesn’t conflict with the annual Buddy Walk®.
“We keep pushing registration back because people show up hours before,” Vanessa Champlin, one of the walk orchestrators, laughs. “Everybody gets so excited about it, everybody waits all year for it, and families make a day of it.”
Part of what makes it so much fun is the competitive spirit between the fundraising teams. It makes for a colorful scene on the day of the walk; looking out from onstage, Vanessa and her co-organizer, Stephanie Donlan, enjoy seeing the growth and spirit of the teams. The top fundraising team wears red, and last year the red shirts grew to take up almost an eighth of the whole Buddy Walk® area.
“We have some really serious teams,” Vanessa says. One team wears bows and “literally decks out t-shirts, shoes, socks, dresses, skirts… they’re covered in bows from head to toe!” This year, due to popular demand, they’ll be having an official t-shirt contest. “People are really excited about the teams pitting against each other,” she says.
It’s that sense of camaraderie that makes the day so memorable. “It’s one of the few places that our self-advocates and older individuals with Down syndrome come together with our younger members, and it’s really cool for the parents to be able to see the potential,” Vanessa says. “A lot of times with a new diagnosis you feel alone and scared, so it’s a cool place to come out to and realize, hey, you’re not alone, all these people are out here to support you.”
Stephanie’s favorite part of the day is announcing the Buddy of the Year. It’s a huge honor to receive, and she loves seeing how proud the Buddy and their family are of their accomplishments. “It’s inspirational for all the young families. Even though you might have a disability, you can still do so much,” she says.
Although the Atlanta Buddy Walk® has grown over the years – it started out with under 100 attendees – what’s stayed the same is the heart behind it. “We are very member-focused,” Vanessa says. “We try to make sure everybody knows how much we appreciate them and what they’re doing for us, and to make sure that everybody has a really fabulous day.”
With all of the activities and entertainment, it’s not hard to see why families anticipate the Buddy Walk® year after year. It’s in beautiful Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. Every year they bring in a fire truck, and walkers can put on the gear, climb on the truck, and talk to the firefighters. They also bring in a game truck with virtual gaming. There are bounce castles, stilt walkers, nail painting, arts and crafts, a silent auction, raffle, and live music with locally famous performers. Food and drinks are provided, and American Legion, an alliance of superheroes that congregates for charity events, meets with young superhero fans.
Along with 4,000 walkers, Vanessa and Stephanie are hoping for a twenty percent increase in funds raised this year, which will allow them to do even more for their membership and the community. The Buddy Walk® is DSAA’s main source of funds, and it allows them to support thirteen active networking and support groups across the metro Atlanta area, plus a very active D.A.D.S. group for fathers of individuals with Down syndrome.
The Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta also supports several local clinics. It is the full funder of Atlanta’s adult Down syndrome clinic, which brings together multiple specialists under one roof and doesn’t turn away any patients. A third of Emory University Down Syndrome Center’s funds come from the DSAA, and they also sponsor programs like a theater for individuals with disabilities, Gigi’s Playhouse, a first call program for new parents, and quarterly seminars for parents and educators. More than all of the activities and entertainment, Vanessa and Stephanie estimate that participants most look forward to coming together, seeing old friends, and making new ones in the community. “It’s not the actual event,” Vanessa says, “it’s the camaraderie that everybody being together builds.”
To be a part of the DSAA’s 17th Annual Buddy Walk® on Sunday, October 19th, you can register at www.ds-stride.org/atlantabuddywalk. To learn more about the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta, visit www.dsaatl.org.
This post is a continuation of our Buddy Walk Profile series. We’ll be profiling and highlighting NDSS Buddy Walk® events from around the country in an effort to share the stories and experiences that make Down syndrome and Buddy Walk® communities so vibrant and unique. Check back for future posts in this series coming soon.