Crowds filled the Jacksonville Commons Recreation Center as community organizations came together in a united front to promote inclusion of people with Down syndrome, Oct. 5. The Down Syndrome Network of Onslow and Carteret Counties (DSNOCC) hosted its annual Buddy Walk featuring speakers, music and a wide variety of activities.

This year’s event was the eighth annual incarnation of the Buddy Walk from the DSNOCC. It was preceded by a 5k color run as well as an opening ceremony featuring crafts, activities, speakers and special performances.

“We celebrate individuals who happen to have Down Syndrome and to have inclusive support means so much,” said Rebecca Droberg, Buddy Walk chair. “To have local businesses, high schools and members of the Marine Corps come out is special.”

The opening ceremony was livened up by the sounds of local performer DJ Finesse while members of the Jacksonville High School cheerleading team kept morale high. Members of Lejeune High School’s Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps handed out stuffed animals and painted faces prior to presenting the colors for the national anthem.

“I like doing anything for the community that means something to someone,” said Shelby Fried, a cheerleader at JHS.

“Bringing joy is important,” said teammate Jordyn Richards.

Service members also volunteered at the event by handing out concessions and ensuring logistics were handled with peak precision.

“I think supporting these kids is important,” said Lance Cpl. Stephanie Grundmann, Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron at Marine Corps Air Station New River. “It’s our job to spread the word about stuff like this. A lot of the time we find out about community events on the MCCS page.”

The two primary speakers at the event were Danielle Matthews, a 20 year old graduate of Croatan High School with Downs, and Heather Richardson. Richardson is a Buddy Walk committee member who lives with Congenital Muscular Dystrophy. Richardson spoke on how, following a loss in mobility and need to go on a respirator, she felt as if she was losing part of herself. To her, the Buddy Walk was something that helped her regain a sense of independence.

“I joined to spend time with my awesome friends and help the community,” said Jennifer Toro, a member of the DSNOCC and speaker on behalf of Richardson. “It was a little scary doing something new (in the first walk).”

A chair from Ainsley’s Angels, a national organization focused on therapy through community runs, made it so Richardson could participate in walks and runs. 

“When you are different you just want to be a part of the crowd,” Toro said. “It took me a while to realize I was still me.”

For those looking to advocate and make a positive impact in their communities, Droberg believes that events like the walk are just part of the solution.

“We would speak of kindness,” Droberg said. “If you see a need (in the community), you meet a need. Mostly, we would ask that people remember we are all more alike than different.”

For more information on the DSNOCC visit https://www.dsnocc.org.