Each year, about 6,000 babies in the United States are born with Down syndrome, making it the most common chromosomal condition. An organization based in Frederick, Maryland, seeks commonality for individuals with Down syndrome by promoting acceptance and inclusion across the county.
Family Resource, Information and Education Network for Down Syndrome (F.R.I.E.N.D.S.), a non-profit group of parents who serve as a Down syndrome advocacy group in Frederick County, has organized an annual Buddy Walk for the last 17 years in Frederick, Maryland.
F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Lends a Hand
Evan Routzahn, current F.R.I.E.N.D.S. President and EDCO Safety Manager, and his family first became involved in F.R.I.E.N.D.S. when it was discovered that their daughter, Avery, had Down syndrome and they sought out information on how she could have the same life experiences as her twin brother, Jack.
With F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Routzahn and his family were exposed to an organization that serves as a support and resource group to expectant parents, new parents and extended families of those born with Down syndrome. Through education, age-appropriate activities for kids and the advocacy of community awareness and acceptance, the Frederick-based group ensures that Down syndrome does not deter life opportunities for children with Down syndrome.
After being welcomed with open arms, “Team Routzahn” quickly became active members in the coordination of the Buddy Walk and eventually became the head of the Buddy Walk’s planning.
The Walk Towards Acceptance and Inclusion
“The Buddy Walk is total inclusion,” said Evan Routzahn, President of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and EDCO Safety Manager. “What’s really cool is you see kids out there playing with their peers, brothers, sisters, families and friends, having a great time together.”
An event that takes months of planning and preparation all culminates at Baker Park with a non-competitive, one-mile walk followed by food, moon bounces, a petting zoo and plenty of other entertainment for participants.
Since joining F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Routzahn has marveled at the growth of the walk locally, as the number of participants has increased to approximately 700 participants.
The Buddy Walk program and its growth are not limited to Frederick County, as there are 250 walks across the nation and around the world. What started nationally in 1995 with 17 walks has grown into 295,000 participants collectively raising $11.75 million to benefit local programs and services.
Frederick County community members and businesses have increasingly supported the Buddy Walk over the years, helping the walk cut down on previously out-of-pocket expenses. 2018’s walk will mark the ninth consecutive year that EDCO has combined with others in the community to support the event.
“EDCO tremendously helps out as far as being a financial contributor to the event,” Routzahn said. “Those funds greatly help as far as not only paying for what we have for the event, but also sponsoring our mission as far as techniques for success, the grants and also the scholarships.”
With community support, volunteers and the inclusive environment that dawns over Baker Park every third Saturday of September, the Buddy Walk serves as a unifying force among the individuals with Down syndrome and their families in the Frederick County community while simultaneously spreading awareness further throughout the county.
Giving towards Growth
The Buddy Walk serves as the primary fundraiser for F.R.I.E.N.D.S. as participants raise money to support the organization’s platform. The 2017 walk yielded over $30,000 that F.R.I.E.N.D.S. utilizes to further spread awareness and support in the area.
A key component of accomplishing the goals set forth by F.R.I.E.N.D.S. is the facilitation of grants and scholarships to the children and families of those with Down syndrome. Grants are available in three areas: medical, enrichment and educational grants.
Medical grants are designed to assist families with the cost of expenses relating to any procedures or appointments. Anything from the expense of a new pair of glasses to a heart procedure can be covered by a grant from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
Enrichment grants provide funds for life opportunities that will catalyze the personal growth of an individual with Down syndrome. Enrichment grants can provide funding for life experiences such as camps or dance lessons that serve as opportunities for children to enrich themselves. These grants can also serve as a provider of walkers or adaptive equipment that open new avenues for the child.
Educational grants assist children in their pursuit of education. By helping to fund adaptive educational devices like laptops and tablets, the child is allowed access to apps and software both in the classroom and at home.
The scholarships offered by F.R.I.E.N.D.S. are beneficial to the area’s community by providing educational funds to those with Down syndrome and those interested in pursuing a career that benefits those with Down syndrome. Candidates such as special education teachers, occupational therapists and physical therapists that will work with individuals with Down syndrome are assisted by these scholarships.
Another prong to F.R.I.E.N.D.S.’ approach to providing resources to the community is the annual Techniques For Success Conference. Sponsored and co-hosted by F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Down Syndrome Network of Montgomery County (DSNMC) and Chesapeake Down Syndrome Parent Group (CDSPG), this year’s conference will provide practical strategies for educating students with Down syndrome and those with other special needs to over 600 educators and parents.
The conference features a number of experienced professionals in the field of education and Down syndrome awareness who lead skill-specific sessions designed to equip educators and parents with the knowledge and skills needed to foster an environment of success for children with Down syndrome and other special needs.
Ultimately the growth enjoyed by both F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and the Buddy Walk’s outreach has been encouraging and productive. This, however, will not limit the goals on the horizon for the group of parents in Frederick County.
“F.R.I.E.N.D.S. does a really good job from age zero to around ten, but we really want to reach out and help the teens and those in early adulthood,” Routzahn said. “Getting into those age groups where they continue to come back and ask F.R.I.E.N.D.S. for resources and guidance is important because we want them to have all of the opportunities available so that they can be contributors and successful members of our community.”
By: Eric Myers