Easily one of my favorite days of the year:
We couldn’t have asked for a nicer day for this year’s Buddy Walk. The morning fog cleared mid-day, the sun came out, and temperatures reached the unseasonably warm upper-70s. The event was held this year at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage home just east of Nashville, and the setting was gorgeous as the fall leaves in Tennessee reach peak colors.
But the truth is that whatever the weather, the Buddy Walk is one of my favorite days of the year. I have written before about how much this day means to us and why. There is just no way to fully explain the experience of walking through a crowd of thousands of people who all share the joy of loving someone with Down syndrome and knowing that we are in this together. This is a group that can move mountains – and will.
Lina was thrilled this year to have a couple sweet classmates from school attend with their families. We are so grateful to all the friends and family who came out to be a part of the walk with us, and to every person who donated. The money raised through this event funds an entire year’s worth of programs for the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee, including critical education and advocacy work. Every donation, every person who comes out to walk is a part of making this community a better place for people with Down syndrome, and ultimately, for all of us. So thank you, thank you, Team Lina. You showed up, and it means the world.
Today was one of our favorite Down Syndrome Association events: the Spring Picnic at the Zoo. It’s an event for member families, and it’s done up right. There’s a meal, time for mingling with families from all over the region, plus full access to the zoo. This year, there was face painting and a photo booth. The weather was perfect, and the kids are both old enough now to really enjoy the zoo. It was a fantastic day, and we are, as always, so grateful for the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee.
Jumping like a kangaroo
I have a lot on my mind, so bear with me over these next couple posts as I try to bring some order to my thoughts.
First, I want to talk more about the Buddy Walk. We had 33 people walk with Team Lina. I don’t have the words to express how much every one of you means to us. The support is incredible, not just for this moment, but because of what it means for the future, for Lina, for our family, for the thousands of other people in our community who have Down syndrome or love someone who does and for many more who will come after us.
I’ve thought quite a bit the last few days about the question, “Why do we have the Buddy Walk?” The first and most obvious answer is that it serves as a rallying event for fundraising. This one event is the primary fundraiser for an entire year of programs and services. Trust me when I say, those services are really important.
From the moment parents receive a Down syndrome diagnosis for an unborn or newborn baby, they have access to balanced, accurate information and first-hand experiences, delivered by a loving community of people eager to embrace them and their new child. That child and his or her family then continue to have access to seminars, social activities, educational and advocacy resources, concrete help like hot meals delivered to hospital rooms during illness or surgery… Our local organization is also often asked to provide a speaker and educational materials to school groups, community organizations, classes of special education teachers in training, medical professionals… This is the voice of real experience for those who teach, interact with and treat people with Down syndrome. Our organization joins others to advocate at the local, state and national level for public policies important to people with Down syndrome.
All of this requires organization, planning and funds. This year, the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee raised just over $200,000 in Buddy Walk fundraising. Those funds make a concrete difference in our family’s experience now and in how Lina will be viewed and the opportunities available to her in the future.
But there is more to the Buddy Walk. The family and friends who joined us this year will tell you it’s a huge celebration, so full of joy and camaraderie. This is an open event where we take time every year to shout to our community and the world, “Down syndrome is not sad. It is not something to be apologized for or hidden away. We celebrate loved ones with Down syndrome because of what they bring to our lives and to this community.” It is an opportunity to counter stereotypes, to model open-armed love and acceptance, to mark progress, to share in a powerful community of people who know what this love feels like. It’s joyful, because loving a person with Down syndrome is joyful. Yes, it can be hard. Love is always hard, because it leaves us vulnerable and requires tremendous sacrifice. But every person in that crowd of thousands knows it’s worth it, because real, bone-deep, unselfish love always is.
I dissolved into tears just once during the Buddy Walk. It was at the end of the walk, as Lina stopped to give high fives and hugs to a troupe of cheerleaders with special needs. They adored her, and she gave unquestioning affection in return.
My tears could have been mistaken for ones of fear and pain, and if I’m honest, perhaps there was some of that in there somewhere; but mostly, I cried then and still cry when I remember it because of how perfectly beautiful it was. I know the world can be a very cruel place, but here, there is simple joy in a hug. I thank God for these moments, because my soul will never be the same.
Today was amazing. I plan to write more later, but for now, i’ll leave just a few photo highlights.
A huge thank you to everyone who came out today and to all those who donated to support this cause. It matters a very, very great deal, to us and to the more than 4,000 people who came out today to celebrate those we love with that extra chromosome.
We joined something like 600 other people today for the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee Spring Picnic at the Zoo. We did this last year – only it was a summer picnic then, and a lot hotter! – and it was so fun to see how much more Lina got out of the experience this year. My in-laws were able to join us, the weather was absolutely perfect, and the kids had a blast. We talked with plenty of families we know and met a few new ones.
We feel so lucky to have a local organization that offers these kinds of opportunities. We have landed in an amazing community, and these events carry such a palpable sense of acceptance and celebration. (A sort-of actual conversation Jon had: “You’re worried your kid will pull my kid’s hair? Hey, me, too! Maybe they’ll really go at it and cure each other!”) Parents of older kids pass down advice about IEP meetings, we stop to coo over the tiny newest members, we celebrate the recovery of kids who spent time in the hospital, we dance to MC Hammer and Taylor Swift, the kids eat too many cookies, we notice kids who look like older or younger versions of ours, we juggle plates and messes and tired little ones. It’s real and it’s joyful.
Everyone should get to experience a community like this.
Note: I wish I could share more pictures of this amazing group, but I don’t have releases to publicly post photos of other families and wouldn’t feel comfortable doing so without permission.
I intended to have lots of fun photos of our first Buddy Walk to share. It turned out, however, that taking the camera out to shoot photos would have risked water damage. So much for that perfect weather we expected… (Friday and Sunday were 65 and sunny, for the record.)
So the only photos from the day are the cell phone variety and… damp. Which is an accurate representation of the event.
We did have a few stretches of slightly drier and warmer weather. The event was celebrity-themed, so each person with Down syndrome got a chance to walk a little red carpet, which was surprisingly touching. The walk itself is a short parade around one end of Nashville’s Centennial Park. Cheerleaders were stationed along the path, and we enjoyed seeing the signs with pictures of so many adorable kiddos.
After the walk, we bravely soldiered through a soggy, chilled picnic lunch as temperatures dropped further. (I was the chicken. After scarfing enough food to stave off starvation, I rushed my unjacketed and half-numb self and the baby to the Jeep, where we waited in relative warmth for the real troopers to get everything packed up.) As soon as we got home, we started a fire in the fireplace and made ourselves some hot chocolate.
Even with the less-than-hospitable weather, we had a lot of fun. I want to say a special thank you to my sweet friend Rebecca, her husband Kirk and their brave kids, who hung in through the wet and chill to show their support. We’re already looking forward to next year, when we can put into use some of the fun ideas we got from other families who know how to do a Buddy Walk right.
And I want to say another thank you to every person who donated. Your contributions have gone to a truly deserving organization that does so much for people with Down syndrome in this community. Because of you, Lina’s first Buddy Walk was a definite success.