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Community : Top Stories Last Updated: Sep 11, 2013 - 8:24:49 AM


Buddy Walk turns 10
By Jennifer Johnston
Sep 4, 2013 - 8:31:28 AM

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Daniel Island kids (clockwise from top) Gabby Meyer, Claire Vail, Joe Durante, and Ella King are pumped for the 2013 Buddy Walk!
The Buddy Walk is always a great time, from jump castles to dancing to family tents lining Etiwan Park.


Happy Anniversary, Buddy! Buddy Walk, to be exact. Since the Lowcountry Buddy Walk began its march for Down syndrome education, outreach, and fundraising ten years ago, it has been held here in Daniel Island. And on Sunday, October 6, from noon to 5 pm, a celebration befitting the occasion will burst onto the Buddy Walk’s annual home, Etiwan Park.
Daniel Island resident Dawn Durante, whose nine year-old son Joe has Down syndrome, has been involved in the planning of the Buddy Walk every year except 2011-2012, and has co-chaired multiple times. This year, she and Down Syndrome Association of the Lowcountry President (DSAL) Julia Slattery are at the helm, and couldn’t be happier about ringing in a decade on DI.
From the start, the Buddy Walk has been organized predominantly by parents, most of whom have had some background in event planning, fundraising, and/or PR. “I had none of this experience,” Durante relates. “Like many things since Joe’s birth, he has made me step out of my comfort zone and live a much bigger life than I ever would have without him.”
This year’s Buddy Walk is presented by Lucey Mortgage and, as always, benefits DSAL, a parent-to-parent, volunteer-run support group. The Buddy Walk serves as a major campaign for the local organization. Just this summer, proceeds from prior years were used for the Buddy Camp, bike camp, swim camp, water park social, and baby packets for parents of newborns with Down syndrome. Over 90% of the funds raised from the Buddy Walk stay right here in the Lowcountry.
Fundraising aside, there is clearly an unquantifiable component to the afternoon's mission, and Durante has clear concept for how she’d like to see it manifested on Daniel Island and the surrounding area. “My personal vision for the walk is for your children to play side-by-side with Joe and see that they all enjoy the same things,” Durante shares. “It is also for families of someone with Down syndrome to be proud of the extraordinary community to which their child has given them the opportunity to connect.”
As part of the Buddy Walk mission, several parents go into school classrooms to teach their children’s peers about Down syndrome. Durante has been doing this since Joe was just one year old, including visits to the classrooms of her daughters, Elly (12) and Colette (7). “Each time I get a little nervous,” she confesses. “But my message is simple: We are all, thankfully and wonderfully, different from one another, and an example of a difference is that some people have Down syndrome and some do not.” Durante goes on to explain to youngsters that Down syndrome just means that kids, like Joe, have to work harder than other kids to do some things, but they can do anything they want to do. Watching the discussion that ensues among classmates after her presentation – where kids share stories about their interactions with Joe and chime in as to how each of them are different from other kids – is rewarding proof to Durante that the kids “get it.”
The Buddy Walk had relatively humble beginnings, with its inaugural year sporting just a few tents, some hot dogs, and a couple of jump castles. Ten years later, the event has gotten amped up, but still retains its friendly hometown feel within the borders of Etiwan Park. Melissa King, whose fourth-grader Ella has Down syndrome, has been participating in the Buddy Walk since her daughter was just a few months old, and remembers when there were only a couple hundred people in attendance. “Ella was four when we moved to DI, so when she was younger we had to come down from Summerville,” Melissa recalls. “But it was always worth the trip!”
This year’s Buddy Walk will see the addition of live music performed by the Dave Landeo Band, as well as eight jump castles, face painting, games, local performances (including Daniel Island’s State Dance Champions, Peace Love Hip Hop), high school bands and cheerleaders, and the Knights of Columbus famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Attendance keeps getting bigger, as evidenced by the line of tents that continues to extend around the perimeter of the park. Last year, over 3,000 people attended the Daniel Island event, which has historically been the third largest Buddy Walk in the country, just behind New York and Chicago.
"The POA has been thrilled to see how the Buddy Walk has grown over the years on Daniel Island,” says Jane Baker, Vice President of Community Services for the Daniel Island Property Owners’ Association. “We really take pride in this very special event, and look forward to hosting the Buddy Walk for decades to come."
Since 2004, the Lowcountry Buddy Walk has bolstered and even mobilized other Down syndrome-related organizations, activities, and outreach in our community. “The Buddy Walk has inspired kids and adults to appreciate what makes us all unique,” observes Durante. To that end, academic-centered programs, like Bishop England High School's Options track, and extracurricular-based outfits, such as Peace Love Hip Hop’s Rockstars and the Purple Tutu, join national K-12 and college-level special needs programs, as well as Unified Sports and Special Olympics, to bolster today and brighten the future. “These programs ask us to bring our kids to them instead of turning their backs on us,” Durante states. “People are realizing that the research is true, that typical children who are educated alongside children with special needs progress better than the kids being segregated from each other.”
The Buddy Walk is also a forum for remarkable moments. King tells us how moving it is every year to see fellow Daniel Island School students come out and support Joe Durante, Claire Vail, and her Ella. And Durante shares that when Joe was just two year-old, tiny, and just learning to walk, the one-mile fun walk had just kicked off, and the Durante family clasped hands as they walked through the band line. Durante recalls looking down and witnessing in awe as her little Joe took big, strong, happy steps that normally would have required the coaxing of a therapist and promise of rewards.
This year, on the Buddy Walk’s big birthday, there are sure to be more wishes coming true.
Registration for the Buddy Walk is open at dsalowcountry.org for $15 per person and includes a t-shirt, food, all activities and entertainment, and a one-mile fun walk through Etiwan Park neighborhood. Please note that the intersections at Seven Farms Drive/Daniel Island Drive, Seven Farms Drive/Etiwan Park Street, and Daniel Island Drive/Cape Street will be blocked from 3 to 4 for Buddy Walkers.
For questions or to find out ways to get involved with the Buddy Walk, please contact Dawn Durante at 843-813-5808 or dawndurante1               @gmail.com.
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