It was rainy Sunday afternoon, but there was plenty of sun to go around at the Capital Region Buddy Walk. It was there in the form of bright smiles, in the shape of warm embraces, and in the feeling of hope and happiness that permeated the damp pavilion in soggy Central Park.
The Buddy Walk is a one-mile inspirational stroll and day of fun that promotes acceptance and inclusion of individuals with Down syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by delayed physical, mental and social development, and distinguishing facial characteristics.
The walk raises funds for the Down Syndrome Aim High Resource Center in Albany, which provides services and support to individuals with Down syndrome and their families, and educates the broader community.
Hundreds of people came out to support the cause, despite the less-than-perfect weather.
Before the walk began, participants gathered beneath the spacious pavilion, where music and the smell of grilled meat filled the air. Teams posed at the photo booth and kids kept busy at the craft table and face painting station.
Cayleigh’s Cronies, a team of 20 dressed in matching yellow T-shirts, smushed together and smiled for the camera. The group of friends and family members gathered to walk in honor of Cayleigh Moorhead of Glenville, a sweet little 4-year-old with straight blond hair, blue-rimmed glasses and an infectious smile. She beamed as she sat on the shoulders of one of her tall teammates.
Two months after she was born with Down syndrome, Cayleigh participated in her first Buddy Walk, and has been a part of every one since.
“She’s a social butterfly. She loves everybody. She’s so happy all the time. She just brings a lot of love and laughter to our lives,” said her mom, Michelle Moorhead.
Near the back of the pavilion, Donald Joseph Nolan — known to his friends as D.J. — was spinning tunes for an appreciative crowd.
“Listen! The drums are going!” he urged, as he beat imaginary drumsticks, keeping the beat of an ABBA song.
The 35-year-old Clifton Park resident, who has Down syndrome, shares his love of music as the DJ for Buddy Walks and other events that involve people with special needs. Next week he’ll work a walk in Fishkill.
“Mamma mia, here I go again. My, my how can I resist you?” he sang, eyes closed, enveloped in the music, a smile lighting his face.
His favorite parts of the Buddy Walk are “the food, the music, and I love ABBA,” he said, then went right back to singing.
Thirty-six teams — a total of 364 walkers — registered in advance for the Buddy Walk, and a good number more registered the day of the event. Organizers hope to raise more than $30,000 to help support the work of the Aim High Resource Center, but the walk’s main objective is “to put out awareness that people with Down syndrome are capable of many things,” said event co-chairwoman Kristine Sigler, whose 2-year-old son, Kiernan, has Down syndrome.
When people look at her son, “I want them to see Kiernan, that’s it,” Sigler said.
Caitlin Service, 18, of Poughquag, was bent over a white apron at the craft table Sunday, working with a stencil and a blue marker to emblazon a dragonfly on the snowy surface. As she concentrated on her project, her mom, Maureen Service, looked at her daughter fondly, and spoke of her as a young woman who has accomplished many things.
“They can do a whole lot more than people realize,” Maureen Service said of the population that lives with Down syndrome. “She can. She’s proved it. She’s a senior in high school; she’s doing great,” she said.
Twenty-four-year-old Gillian Mason of Albany, a student in a two-year-long life skills program at The College of Saint Rose, had an eye on the crowd at the Buddy Walk.
“I like it,” the cute, strawberry-blond-haired young woman said with a smile. “It’s fun.” Around her neck hung a digital camera that she was using to record all of the goings-on.
“I like to take pictures of big events. I love photography. My biggest dream is to become a professional photographer,” she said.
Mason, who has been taking pictures for about 10 years, said she likes everything about the Buddy Walk, but she admitted that there is one thing she doesn’t like — Down syndrome. “Because sometimes it breaks my heart — sometimes,” she explained. “Looking at people, I want to be a normal human being like everyone else.”
Despite the troubling topic, her smile was quick to return, and she proudly showed off the pictures she had taken.
“Is it OK if I follow you around?” she asked the Gazette photographer who had stopped to admire her snapshots. She was delighted when the answer came back, “Yes.”
At noon, the crowd filed out to the walkway that circles Iroquois Lake. They set off, hoods up, umbrellas unfurled, a spattering of leashed dogs jogging alongside of them. As the colorful slickers and bright umbrellas curved around the gray lake, laughter and happy chatter blended with the beat of the rain, and it was easy to envision the line of inspiring walkers as a rainbow.