EAST MANATEE -- October is National Down Syndrome Month and by the looks of the 13th Annual Buddy Walk held Saturday as part of the during the Hunsader Farms Pumpkin Festival, the event achieved its goal of raising awareness and support.
Hosted by the Lakewood Ranch-based Manasota Buds, an all-volunteer organization of parents dedicated to individuals of all ages with Down syndrome and their families, the Buddy Walk has grown from 17 walks held in 1995 to nearly 275 walks a year worldwide.
Locally, about 1,300 participants, many who arrived in teams of families and friends, took part in Saturday's "country-mile" event that began near the Hunsader Farms pumpkin patch. The trek provided an opportunity for families to support a cause and to enjoy the cool, sunny day engaged in festival activities.
The pumpkin festival was chosen because the family has a grandson with Down syndrome, said Manasota Buds board member Mary Lou Bear.
"They've been very gracious to allow us to use their facility and it's a win-win for everybody."
Bear said the goal of the Buddy Walk this year, as in years past, is to raise $100,000 which is used locally to help fund programs, educational and therapeutic services and scholarships so children and adults with Down syndrome can attend summer camp.
This year's Buddy Walk was led by crowned king and queen, Justin Bear, 16, and Sarah Davis, 17, who both attend Pinnacle Academy in Lakewood Ranch, a private, non-denominational school specializing in the education of children with autism and related behavioral disorders.
Justin's father, Jeff Bear, said the school has been a blessing for his son.
"It's primarily austistic, but we find that there's a lot of similarities between Down syndrome and autism for teaching. They do a nice program and there's a low ratio of teacher-to-student," Bear said.
Raising funds for the cause
Candice Knorr said she was experiencing her third Buddy Walk this year, after giving birth to twins Seth and Annalise, who has Down syndrome. Knorr said the money raised by the walk will be put to good use.
"When Annalise was in the hospital, Manasota Buds dropped off a packet of information which was so helpful because I'd never been exposed to Down syndrome before. The money raised today will help with those information packets and also some of the great programs they sponsors like 'Take Part with Kids' for children 5 and under to get together in the Bradenton area," she said.
Treasurer Jim Baar, who kicked off the Buddy Walk following a rousing country music performance by the Florida Mountain Boys band, thanked Hunsader Farms for such a "cool" venue.
"There's not too many walks around the world you can spend your day at such a nice festival. It's amazing to see how we started 13 years ago as a forum for parents and how we've grown since then. The message I want to impart today is: children with Down syndrome are more alike than different."
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.