Author: Rose Phillips, ds-connex team member
This post is the first in a new series for the Connexions blog. 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 the Down syndrome and Buddy Walk communities so vibrant and unique. Check back for future posts in this series coming soon.
This fall, the second Sunday in October will see Daniel Boone High School of Berks County, Pennsylvania, packed with families and friends gathered together to celebrate and inspire. The Reach for the Stars 3rd Annual Buddy Walk & Family Fun Day will include entertainment and activities for the entire family including live music, face painting, a petting zoo, bounce houses, pumpkin painting, games and more. The highlight of these festivities, though, is the one mile walk around the stadium track. The reason? To come together and celebrate, inspire, and spread the word about Down syndrome awareness.
Nicole Geloso, co-founder of the Reach for the Stars Buddy Walk & Family Fun Day, was introduced to the Down syndrome community when her son Joseph was born in 2009. While “Joe Joe” was a patient of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they heard about the Buddy Walk put on by the hospital at Villanova University. That was the family’s first Buddy Walk, and it was an inspiration. “I realized that we needed to bring an event like this to where we live,” says Nicole. “Then I got together with Michele, we gathered a couple ideas, and had our first Buddy Walk.”
Nicole met Michele Peterson when Michele became her son’s therapist. This will be the third year the two friends have worked together to coordinate the Reach for the Stars Buddy Walk & Family Fun Day. They view the event as an opportunity to get together and celebrate their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, “to promote awareness that these individuals live in our community, go to school here, will have job opportunities here and are contributing members of our community,” Nicole says.
The Buddy Walk in Berks County is unique because it is relatively small. It’s a close-knit community, and almost all of their Buddies know each other due to their involvement in other events throughout the year. In fact, the organization uses the funds raised by their annual Buddy Walk to host activities for individuals with Down syndrome in Berks County, as well as to grow the Reach for the Stars organization and its efforts to spread the word. They have a social event every year, and last year they bought books for all the elementary schools in the county to celebrate World Down Syndrome Day and educate the community.
Going forward, Nicole and Michele will be working on expanding the support offered for local individuals with Down syndrome and their families. Exciting things are in the works; next year, they’re planning on having the first ever conference on Down syndrome in Berks County.
Entertainment in Store This year’s Reach for the Stars Buddy Walk will offer entertainment for all ages. Last year, the event featured Green Tea Revival, a country-rock cover band, as well as songwriter and advocate Corey Barker, Theraplay, games, and other family-friendly activities for the whole family. Special Olympics medalist, self advocate and clothing designer Ashley DeRamus was among the inspiring individuals who made an appearance.
This year promises to include just as much fun and inspiration. Nicole and Michele are hoping to enlist some of their local self-advocates who are older than 18 to come back and speak. “Our young adults have a lot to share,” Nicole says. “You don’t have to be a kid to have Down syndrome. You grow up and you still have it. We want our event to be all-encompassing – not just for kids.”
Running a successful Buddy Walk is no easy feat, but it’s always worth it to Nicole and Michele. Nicole’s favorite story last year came from one of their Buddies, Abigail, who is thirteen. “Last year I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off,” she says. Since this is their big yearly get-together, Nicole was busy greeting everyone that wanted to catch up with her. Abigail spent all day looking for Nicole. “She wanted to find me so bad,” Nicole says. “She was so excited to hand me this envelope that had 56 dollars in it that she had personally raised from a lemonade stand in her driveway. She wanted to make sure I got it. It was the most special $56 we raised that year.”
No matter how much they raise, Nicole says the true value of the Berks County Buddy Walk is the feeling of inspiration and togetherness that the walkers gain. “The money is not my primary goal. I just want everybody and anybody to come out and be a part of it. I just want to have people there so they can see and experience joy,” she says. Nicole’s favorite part of the day is hearing a self-advocate sing the national anthem during the opening ceremony. She knows that you can’t help but feel uplifted seeing the Buddies and the way the community comes together around them. “I hope that people are inspired; they have a smile on their face the entire time,” Nicole says. “I think people know they’re coming to celebrate their loved one and accomplishments, to be together as a family too and realize we’re better in numbers than walking through this journey alone.”
To register for or donate to the Reach for the Stars 3rd Annual Buddy Walk & Family Fun Day, visit www.ds-stride.org/berksbuddywalk. You can learn more about Reach for the Stars at www.berksreachforthestars.org/.