Author: Rose Phillips, ds-connex team member
Buddy Walk Date: Saturday, September 20th, 2014, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Who: FRIENDS Buddy Walk®
Where: ETSU (East Tennessee State University) Soccer Warm-Up Field, Johnson City, TN
Buddy Walk website: http://www.ds-stride.org/friendsbuddywalk
Friends website: http://www.dsfriends.net/
Johnson City may be a small town in Tennessee, but it is home to a thriving Buddy Walk® event whose attendees span a three-state radius. In the early years, the FRIENDS Buddy Walk® was admittedly small, as all new Buddy Walk® events are. But now, in its 14th year, Jana Webb and the other event organizers are expecting more than 750 attendees from the TN, NC and WV area.
FRIENDS, or Friends Reaching, Inspiring, & Educating Neighbors about Down Syndrome, was formed by just a few families in the area who had young children with Down syndrome. “We’ve worked hard over the last fourteen years to make it what it is,” Jana says. “I guess it keeps going because of everyone’s love for individuals with Down syndrome, wanting for them to feel a sense of accomplishment, to feel included.”
Last year, the FRIENDS Buddy Walk® event raised almost $40,000, and this year organizers are hoping to top that number. Jana’s confident that this year’s walk will be bigger and better than ever. “We’ve grown in the people who are aware of us,” she says. “We’ve grown in the money we’re able to raise, reaching more, expanding our boundaries.”
Not only is the FRIENDS Buddy Walk® instrumental in raising local awareness of Down syndrome, but it also reaches people that don’t yet know about FRIENDS and could use its services. The Buddy Walk® allows FRIENDS to fund a diverse set of programs and events for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. They have annual family events like Christmas and summer socials. Snak & Yak, a group for ages twelve and over, meets for activities like bowling almost monthly, and Tots to 12, a group for younger individuals, meets 4-5 times a year for fun group events like Disney on Ice, Elmo Live, and water park trips. For parents, they have a mom’s night out and a dad’s night out every third month. Parents share experiences and offer support over dinner, and many look forward to the guest speakers that have become a highlight in recent years.
Often, one of the hardest things about running an organization like FRIENDS is getting the word out to families in need. “People find out about us because of the Buddy Walk®,” Jana says. “We’ve actually had drive-bys the day of the walk where people have seen us and spread the word to other people who have individuals with Down syndrome in their lives. We know there’s lots of people out there who still don’t know we exist and we’re here for them, so I think that raising awareness in our area has probably been the largest thing for us.”
It would definitely be hard to not notice the Buddy Walk® when driving by; it has a festive array of fun for the entire family, like inflatables, face painters, carnival games, and food. Last year, the Washington County Sherriff’s department came and did fingerprinting and ID kits for the kids, and they had a photo booth, balloon archway, and karaoke on stage. Last year, self-advocate and celebrity Chris Burke performed with his band, and this year, country singer Trey Hensley will be performing for everyone’s enjoyment.
The best part of the Buddy Walk, for Jana, is seeing new faces. “Every year, when we find out about one or two families who didn’t know about us and they start coming out, that’s enough to keep me going,” she says. Watching everyone cross the finish line is when that impact is most visible to Jana. She says her favorite part of the day is “just to see their faces and excitement when they come through the finish line, receive their trophy from the grand marshal and get their picture taken. Just to know that we touched somebody.”
The FRIENDS Buddy Walk® event will take place on Saturday, September 20th at the East Tennessee State University Soccer Warm-Up Field. To register or donate, visit the Stride site at www.ds-stride.org/friendsbuddywalk. To learn more about FRIENDS, visit their website at www.dsfriends.net.
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.