Buddy Walk® Profile: SMILE on Down Syndrome Buddy Walk® SMILE Mile

Author: Rose Phillips, ds-connex team member

Buddy Walk Date: Saturday, October 4, 2014
Who: SMILE on Down Syndrome
Location: Vanderburgh County 4-H Center
Buddy Walk website: www.ds-stride.org/evansvillebuddywalk
SMILE on Down Syndrome website: www.smileondownsyndrome.org

On one Saturday in October 2002, Nina Fuller and a few parent volunteers and friends waited anxiously at the registration tables for their first annual Buddy Walk®, unsure that anyone would show up, hoping and praying that the 300 slices of pizza, hotdogs, and buns they had would be gone by the end of the day. Due to an unlucky coincidence, the first ever SMILE on Down Syndrome Buddy Walk® was to take place on the same weekend as their community’s annual Fall Festival, and Nina and the other volunteers had planned a great day for the attendees—if they showed up.

The Evansville organizers needn’t have worried. They were relieved and excited to see the first few families arrive and line up at the registration tables, but people kept coming, “grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, friends — some bearing homemade signs shouting their devotion to their loved ones with Down syndrome, all eager to participate in this show of appreciation and awareness to the world,” Nina recalls. “We counted 500 people on the 4-H Fairgrounds of Vanderburgh County. We were elated but we also knew we didn’t have enough pizza or hot dogs. We also ran out of t-shirts but we were not disappointed that we underestimated our community. The impact we were making had just begun!”

evansville blog picture Twelve years later, there are not enough pizza shops in town to provide food for the 3,500 people that are expected at the 2014 SMILE on Down Syndrome Buddy Walk® in Evansville, Indiana. “We now have an outpouring of middle-schools, high schools, colleges, fraternities, sorority groups, youth groups, cheer teams, sports teams, bands, and business groups that come out just to volunteer to help make this day as special,” Nina says.

By necessity, the SMILE On Buddy Walk® Committee is no longer just a few parents and volunteers. “Since those early days, and in large part thanks to the Buddy Walk® fundraisers, we are now able to pay two part-time staff members,” she says. That’s where Nikki Davis, SMILE’s Executive Director, comes in. This will be the fourth Buddy Walk® Nikki has helped to plan. Why is the Evansville Buddy Walk® so popular? “Our SMILE Mile Buddy Walk brings out what I like to describe as one large family,” she says. “Extended groups of family and friends come in from hundreds of miles and from across the country to rally in support of our self-advocates. The love and excitement over our amazing guests with Down syndrome is electric, contagious, and is what makes our event so much fun to attend year after year!”

Since its inception, Nikki and Nina agree that the SMILE on Down Syndrome Buddy Walk® has changed the community’s perception of individuals with Down syndrome. “One benefit of having our local Buddy Walk now in its 14th year is that our community has expanded its arms to embrace people with Down syndrome, as well as others with special needs,” Nina says. “I have seen the shift in the tide of acceptance in high schools as teens with Down syndrome are included in general education classrooms by their peers, they are welcomed to eat lunch with their peers in the cafeterias at school, and are being included in choirs, school plays, sporting events, and proms.” The change is not just happening in schools. In the wider community, businesses in Evansville are hiring teens and adults with Down syndrome more readily. “In fact, one business owner who has volunteered at several of our Buddy Walks assured a young man shortly before he turned 16 that she would hire him,” Nina says. “The day after his 16th birthday he went to apply, and four years later he is still working as a host at one of our finer restaurants.”

Besides raising awareness in the community, the Buddy Walk® raises funds that support critical programs and services for families in the Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky Tri-State area. The money also helps fund the SMILE Center in downtown Evansville, a program that provides enrichment opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities and their families. People come for the family entertainment—they’ll have a DJ, a talent show put on by self-advocates, fun activities for the children, information booths, silent auction, petting zoo and food—but Nina says it’s not really about the food or the entertainment. “It’s about making our loved ones with Down syndrome KNOW they are HEROES, that they are very loved and very special,” she says.

The 2014 SMILE on Down Syndrome Buddy Walk® SMILE Mile will take place on Saturday, October 4, 2014 at the Vanderburgh County 4-H Center. To volunteer, register, or donate to the Evansville Buddy Walk®, visit the Stride site at www.ds-stride.org/evansvillebuddywalk. To learn more about SMILE on Down Syndrome, visit their website at www.smileondownsyndrome.org.

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!

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