BRATTLEBORO -- The Buddy Walk is a national event held in communities all across the country to benefit the National Down Syndrome Society. And the one held here in town is merely the offspring of the event held in Woodstock for years.
About 250 people convened on the Brattleboro Common on Saturday for the 5th Annual Brattleboro Buddy Walk with the same goal in mind, as well as to raise funds for a drop-in center for those affected by Down syndrome. Organizer Jim Nicholson and his daughter, Kayli, welcomed all their guests, and Marisa Duncan-Holley, the director of special education and support services for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, delivered a keynote address before everyone embarked on the one-mile walk around a part of downtown Brattleboro and returned via Main Street.
Duncan-Holley thanked Nicholson for his commitment to the event and stressed how important it is to respect and support those with disabilities and learning difficulties.
"Just because someone learns differently doesn't mean they have to learn separately," she said, before advocating for local businesses to try to hire at least one employee with some sort of a disability. "Just because someone has a disability, that doesn't mean they shouldn't have a job.
After completing the walk, Duncan-Holley said it is overwhelming to see how the event has grown over the past five years and to know so many people care about the cause.
"It's absolutely great because it shows that this community is really behind people who have disabilities or other labels," she said.
There were snacks for everyone in attendance at the Common and an inflatable bounce house for small children to enjoy. Organizations such as the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, Reece's Rainbow (an adoption grant foundation for orphans with Down syndrome) and the Boys & Girls Club of Brattleboro set up tables to educate people on related topics and members of the Brattleboro Union High School freshman football team served as crossing guards for those participating in the walk.
"They were here at like 8:30 in the morning, setting up all these tables and chairs and getting the bouncy house set up," he said of the football players. "So, they've been here throughout the morning."
Nicholson, whose daughter Kayli has Down syndrome, said the Brattleboro event has grown immensely in the past five years. He said the first year brought out 200 people. Money is generated by participants' registration fees, which are waived if the participants raise $50 or more in pledges. Nicholson told the Reformer he and his wife Lisa got the idea for a Brattleboro Buddy Walk after attending the event in Woodstock and decided one was needed in town.
"So we said, ‘Let's organize one,' with the intent of what we're doing right here - raising awareness, promoting inclusions and celebrating," he said. "Those are the three chief goals of this event.
"It is totally grassroots," he continued. "I may do the organizing stuff, but this kind of thing doesn't happen without so many people just supporting the event with their donations but also just coming out and supporting us."
Steve White first started taking part in the Buddy Walk in Woodstock 20 years ago because his son, Brian, was born with Down syndrome and he now participates in the Brattleboro event. He said it is nice to see how the event has expanded and how its sponsors are now actively hiring young people with special needs.
Brian's sister, Mandy White, said it is difficult to believe all the support at the Buddy Walk.
"It's really incredible," she said. "I love being able to be here and see all of Brian's friends from all the different things he's involved with all coming together."
Mandy said her mother, Robin White-Diamondstone, helps organize the festivities.
The first Buddy Walks were held in 1995, when 17 events were held in different parts of the country. By 2003, there were 190 walks in five countries and more than $2.5 million had been raised. That number increased to $11.75 million by 2011.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer