By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Many folks are currently feeling a sense of isolation thanks to social distancing measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But feelings of isolation are nothing new. For many parents, a feeling of loneliness can spring up when their child is diagnosed with Down syndrome.
After Tammy Rowe learned he daughter Briley had Down syndrome back in 1999, she began searching for ways to connect with other parents of children with Down syndrome. During that search, she discovered a Buddy Walk in Knoxville, an event built to raise awareness of the condition while building a community for families with children who share the diagnosis.
Rowe said her first question was, “Why don’t we have one of those here?”
So in 2000, the first Tri-Cities Buddy Walk was held on the VA Mountain Home Campus. A little over 100 people participated in the event, and a sense of community sprung up from the beginning.
“I started meeting so many people when we started organizing (the Buddy Walk) that thought they were the only people around this area that had a child with Down syndrome,” Rowe said. “It’s crazy how many people thought they were the only ones.”
Twenty years later, the Buddy Walk – which is organized by a group called FRIENDS – has grown exponentially. Hundreds of folks gathered on the campus of ETSU for last year’s event, which featured a plethora of activities and an outpouring of community support.
But the arrival of COVID-19 earlier this year threw a wrench in plans that were being made for what would have been a grand 20th anniversary edition of the Buddy Walk. Rowe credits Misty Adams of FRIENDS for figuring out a solution that will keep folks safe while allowing the Buddy Walk to march on.
This year, the event will take place virtually from Sept. 20-26. Participants have the option of how and where to do their individual walks to mark the milestone. Anyone who wants to register for the event can do so by visiting www.classy.org/event/virtual-buddy-walk-2020/e289934.
Even though everyone will be walking separately this year, thanks to FRIENDS, Rowe said nobody will be walking alone. When Briley was a young girl, she was blessed with the opportunity of being mentored by an older girl named Summer Buchanan who also had Down syndrome.
Now an adult, Briley volunteers at the hospital in addition to working a job, and she enjoys mentoring young children following in her footsteps through FRIENDS. In the midst of the pandemic, Rowe said the organization has helped parents and children stay connected through social media and other digital avenues.
Briley is in a group of self-advocates, and Rowe said they hold regular Zoom meetings to stay in touch and engage in activities like music, exercise and art. Our local Buddy Walk started with a search for community, and Rowe said it is a pleasure to watch her daughter reach out and engage with others in such a warm, supportive way.
“When you get a diagnosis like that, your dreams kind of change, but it’s so much better,” Rowe said.
Visit dsfriends.net for more information on FRIENDS.