Author: Rose Phillips, ds-connex team member
When her son Gavin was born with Down syndrome almost four years ago, Andrea Holmes felt alone. “We did not know that there was any kind of support out there in Chattanooga for us,” she says. “The nurses were very afraid to even talk to us; it was an emotional and sad time for our family.”
After doing some research online, she found out that the Chattanooga Buddy Walk® was just days away. The family signed up right away, and Gavin was the youngest walker that year at only two and a half weeks old. “It gave us an instant family that we didn’t know we had,” says Andrea. It was a small walk, and she knew she wanted to get involved to help other families feel that same sense of acceptance and community. By the end of her second Buddy Walk® committee meeting, she found herself serving as chair of the walk.
The CDSS (Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society) Buddy Walk® has changed a lot since then. At that time, they had four or five hundred walkers nestled away in a park in the woods. “The whole reason to have a Buddy Walk® is to raise awareness and let people know, hey, we’re here, we need to be seen and we need to be heard!” Andrea says. So they moved the event downtown to AT&T Field. The ease of accessibility and increased visibility has made the Chattanooga Buddy Walk® grow quickly.
Last year the Chattanooga Buddy Walk had 1,485 walkers, and this year they’re aiming for 2,000. Rachel Coleman, host of the popular television program Signing Time! will make a guest appearance, and Andrea’s hoping her popularity will draw in people from the neighboring cities of Nashville, Atlanta, and Knoxville.
Signing Time! is not the only reason people will flock to AT&T Field on September 27th, however. The Buddy Walk® offers entertainment for the whole family. For the kids, there will be multiple bounce houses, mascots, and carnival games. A kid-friendly DJ will keep everyone dancing and there will be batting cages, a dress-up photo booth, a silent auction, plus pizza, popcorn, and cotton candy for all.
They’ll also have resource booths for parents, with information on different therapies, physicians, and special needs insurance. The best part of the event, though, is the sense of community. “The networking that people can do and the socialization for the kids is amazing,” Andrea says. “I think that’s what parents look forward to the most, to see everybody, how they’ve grown, and to celebrate their kids.” The families of the CDSS are a welcoming and tight-knit group. “I guess it’s a southern thing,” Andrea laughs. “We have a very large city, but at the same time we’re a very close, family-oriented city as well. It’s amazing.”
The Buddy Walk® is the organization’s number one fundraiser for the year. The funds generated allow CDSS to offer physical activity scholarships to families, a medical hardship helper for families having a hard time paying expensive medical bills, mini conferences (Andrea loves the one led by “The Potty Whisperer”), lots of social functions throughout the year, and a Welcome to the World gift basket for new families.
If the Buddy Walk® is very successful this year, Andrea plans on starting a post-secondary education scholarship for older individuals with Down syndrome. Other than raising more funds, she would also like to see more involvement from young adults and teenagers with Down syndrome. “A lot of people think that our organization is for the younger kids, and it’s not,” she says. “We want to reach out to young and older adults as well to see what their needs are and what we can do for them this year.”
Raising money and spreading the word are important, but Andrea’s favorite part of the day is watching the gates open and seeing people flood AT&T field. “I love seeing the faces on kids when they come in, the electricity and excitement of the families, knowing that this day is all about them, to celebrate them,” she says.
You can join the fun at AT&T Field on Saturday, September 27th, 2014. Gates open at 9:00 AM, an hour earlier than last year. To learn more about the Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society, visit their website at www.chattanoogadownsyndrome.org. To register for or donate to the CDSS Buddy Walk®, visit the Stride site at www.ds-stride.org/chattanoogabuddywalk.
If you liked this post, please check out the rest of our Buddy Walk Profile series. We profile NDSS Buddy Walk® events from around the country in an effort to share the stories and experiences that make the Down syndrome and Buddy Walk communities so vibrant and unique. If you’d like us to feature your Buddy Walk, please let us know in the comments below!