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Buddy Walk set for Sunday to raise awareness and promote inclusion

More than 1,500 people are expected to gather Sunday for the 17th Annual Columbia Buddy Walk, organized by Family Connection of South Carolina to celebrate inclusion and promote acceptance of people with Down Syndrome. All are invited, and those who’ve been before say even the first time at Buddy Walk feels like coming home.

Toni Turbeville Morton attended Buddy Walk for the first time just a month after the birth of her son, Dylan, who has Down Syndrome. Dylan was the youngest and smallest person on hand that year, weighing less than 6 pounds. Morton said she and her family had no idea what to do when they got the diagnosis, but they found help at Buddy Walk.

“I didn’t have a clue,” she said.”[Family Connection and the Buddy Walk community] stepped right up to the plate.”

Dylan is now 4, and has never missed a Buddy Walk. “As a mom, I like to think I see a little kick in his step when he sees another kid with Down Syndrome,” Morton said. She added that she worries about the questions he’ll have when he’s older, particularly when he reaches his teenage years, but knowing the annual event will be there comforts her. “If all else fails, I know we can show up at Buddy Walk and he’s going to find somebody there he can talk to. It’s a big deal.”

The family friendly event is free and features games, bounce houses, food, music, vendors and fun for all ages. Registration and Team Check-In begins at 1 p.m. at Saluda Shoals Park East, 6071 St. Andrews Rd., Columbia (the new athletic field complex off St. Andrews Rd.). The actual walk begins at 2:15 p.m. The Special Buddy Final Lap will take place around 3:30 p.m., followed by special presentations.

Approximately 70 Special Buddies, along with 1,500 of their family members and friends, are expected to participate this year, and all are welcome. Morton said her older son, Jackson (7), enjoys the event every year and even has his own calendar marked as it approaches.

Morton and her family knew no one when they arrived at their first Buddy Walk, feeling uncomfortable and unsure what to do. She said the reception they received was amazing.

“People I’d never even met before were walking up and saying ‘We can be friends!’ I remember this sense of just the weight lifting a little bit,” she said. She said the experience is special every year as a Buddy Walk veteran. “Just to walk around and see all of those beautiful faces and people who not only care for them, but advocate for them.”

Family Connection puts families of children with Down Syndrome in touch with the resources they need, from simple information to assistance to invaluable advice. Morton said when she was told Dylan had Down Syndrome, she had no idea what that really meant or how it would impact his life and his family’s. Her advice for those in the same situation is simple: ask for help.

“My biggest thing is… if there’s any question in your mind if there’s something going on with your kid, get help,” she said. “Just show up” at Buddy Walk or contact Family Connection of South Carolina at any time.

In addition to the other resources, Morton said she has benefited greatly from connecting with other parents of children with Down Syndrome. “They know better than you what you’re facing,” she said. “They’re going through this too. They get it.”

For more information or to register for Buddy Walk, visit https://www.ds-stride.org/columbiabuddywalk or call (803) 252-0914.

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