Despite having a down-sized event due to COVID-19, the East Texas Down Syndrome Group still came together Sunday afternoon to celebrate its annual buddy walk with fun and fellowship for area children and their families.
The 19th annual Buddy Walk of East Texas changed its format to ensure the safety of participants, but continued with a picnic and activities for the families of children with Down syndrome at the Starbrite Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Whitehouse.
Tara McHam, East Texas Down Syndrome Group board president, said normally the buddy walk would consist of a 1-mile walk with food vendors and team events. In past years, the buddy walk has alternated locations between Tyler and Longview.
This year due to COVID-19, 12 families within the group participated in the picnic featuring a foam pit, snacks, snow cones, horses and more, McHam said.
McHam said being able to have the event in some form helps give families the emotional support they need during the isolation of the pandemic.
“It’s provided our families hope that we are moving past COVID,” McHam said.
She said that events like the buddy walk show people that other families are going through similar obstacles or challenges.
McHam said the East Texas Down Syndrome Group partnered with Starbrite to provide a place with a large field and somewhere the families could feel safe. McHam said all the kids loved the center and enjoyed the activities.
Mike Killingsworth, of Jacksonville, and his son, Cash, 5, and family have attended the buddy walk ever since Cash was just under 1 year old.
Killingsworth said despite the buddy walk becoming a picnic, it’s still great to get together, as the group has become one big family.
Killingsworth said Cash is a very energetic and pretty much typical toddler.
“He brings more joy to things,” he said.
He said kids with Down syndrome are “more alike than different” compared to other children.
Killingsworth added the knowledge sharing over the years has helped their family, and now they’re able to assist the new families coming to the group.
“We try to help a lot,” Killingsworth said. “It’s given us a lot, so we try to give back to it.”
Both the group and annual walk help bring awareness to show people Down syndrome isn’t something to be afraid of, he said.
Discussions from group membership lets families just starting out know which therapies to utilize for their child, Killingsworth added.
TJ Angus, of Longview, has been coming to walk with his 8-year-old son, Austin, since he was 1 year old.
Angus said in the beginning the group helped their family become more knowledgeable about Down syndrome, and now they’re able to help new families.
“It’s nice to be able to talk to those new families as well gain life-long friendships,” Angus said.
Cindy McCall, executive director of the Starbrite Therapeutic Equestrian Center, said the center was happy to host the group to celebrate Down syndrome awareness.
“These are the kids we already serve,” she said.
Starbrite is a nonprofit providing therapies using horses to help youth, adults and veterans with physical, mental, social and psychological disabilities.
McCall said the center serves all ends of the special needs spectrum, including dyslexia, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Equestrian therapy helps the kids be able to focus and assist with their motor skills. The kids who visit the center end up laughing and having fun during their therapy session, McCall said.
“It’s just a huge difference in their lives and they light up when they get here,” she said. “This makes them think a little more and become focused.”
McHam said the East Texas Down Syndrome Group is always looking for volunteers who are not family members. She noted the Chapel Hill ISD students who volunteered Sunday were a “huge blessing.”