The Lowcountry Down Syndrome Society (LDSS) is celebrating a big milestone in supporting families touched by Down syndrome. The group is entering its 10th year in providing outreach, education and advocacy to families in eight counties surrounding the Savannah area.
LDSS has grown from a group of four families who banded together in April 2006, with a shared experience of having a family member with Down syndrome, to a society that has attracted thousands of parents, children, advocates, community volunteers and corporate supporters.
The LDSS organized its first Buddy Walk in October 2006.
“We hoped a couple hundred people would turn out for that first event, and we purchased enough hot dogs to feed about that many,” said Candy Bogardus, past president and founding member. “To our amazement, more than 900 people showed up, and not one went away without eating. It was like the loaves and fishes story from the Bible. Each year since then, the Buddy Walk has continued to grow, and this past year, we had 5,000 people involved.“
The Buddy Walk is the LDSS’ main fundraising event, held each October in Savannah’s Forsyth Park. Proceeds from the one-mile walk support Camp Buddy, the organization’s educational and therapeutic camps for children with Down syndrome, ages 3-13, held in Effingham and Chatham counties each summer. The camps offer special education, occupational, physical and speech therapy in a customized curriculum to help children retain information they learned during the previous school year.
Another fundraising activity the group promotes each year is their calendar sales. Featuring photos of local children with Down syndrome, the calendars will be sold at the Buddy Walk and online. Joe Marchese, president, said, “We’ve sold these calendars for eight years now. This year’s theme is ‘Who is your hero?’. If you would like to fill your year with joy these calendars will bring a smile to your face every month.”
The organization also hosts a yearly Night of Champions, with proceeds supporting Camp Buddy. This community celebration distinguishes local organizations that hire and retain differently-abled people, including those with Down syndrome, and recognizes the contributions made by those employees. The sixth annual Night of Champions was held TMay 14 at the Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa – Hotel Grand Ballroom, emceed by celebrity chef and author, Jamie Deen.
“As LDSS has grown, we’ve been fortunate to reach out and touch people in different ways, including our new parent packages and our lending library, as well as our three main events,” said Marchese. “Everyone is valued for the contributions they can bring.“
The Bogardus, Marchese, Hussey and Fears families, who first came together as parents of children with Down syndrome to form the LDSS, have continued to remain involved and now mentor new families entering the organization. Ella Marchese, who was her parents’ inspiration in establishing the group, is now a vivacious fourth grader with a “Ph.D in empathy,” according to her father. Lainey Bogardus, also her parents’ inspiration in founding LDSS, is 10 years old and a thriving fourth-grader. Her mother attributes much of her child’s well-being to the strides the organization has made to ensure all children with different abilities have the same opportunities as other children.
“We’re here to enable people to live their own dreams, not the dream we have or society has for them,” echoed Marchese. “Our organization would love to see Savannah become one of the most accepting places in the country.”