Lizzy Samples sits on a family member’s shoulders during the walk. (Photos by Caroline Evans/Carolina News and Reporter)

The Saluda Shoals Park Athletic Fields were filled with families, friends, volunteers and community members gathered Sunday to participate in the annual Buddy Walk.

It was 81 degrees and sunny as people from all walks of life came to celebrate families who have a child with Down syndrome. The 24th annual Buddy Walk was a fundraiser that allows children with Down syndrome and their families to circle the field and receive a medal. But the walk was just one aspect of the event.

Family Connection of South Carolina, the event’s sponsor, provides services and training at no cost to families. On Sunday, it brought people together with Halloween spirit for the Buddy Walk and a trunk-or-treat tailgate beforehand. Most attendees donned festive Halloween costumes or matching shirts in support of a child with Down syndrome.

Katie Riker and her family could be spotted easily by the bright yellow T-shirts they wore to support Katie’s cousin, second grader Lizzy Samples. Lizzie was born with Down syndrome. Riker enjoys coming to the Buddy Walk to support the kids and brought her own children with her.

“While they have some differences, they are more alike than different,” Riker said.

Kids played lawn games such as Connect 4, Kerplunk and Cat and Mouse. All the games were accessible, giving everyone the opportunity to participate. The games weren’t the only place Family Connection made an effort to be inclusive. After each announcement over the loudspeakers, a Spanish translation of what was said would echo from a translator on stage.

Erin Coats, a 24-year-old with Down syndrome, said her favorite parts of the Buddy Walk are dancing, getting her medal after completing the walk, being out in the sun so she can “get a sun tan.”

Erin’s mom, Nadene Coats, said Erin has been participating in the walk since before she could walk. Nadene remembers pushing Erin in a stroller when she was little.

The Coats family is not the only group of walkers who have watched their child grow over the years through the Buddy Walk.

“And I had a dad say to me one time, ‘This was such a special event to me because last year, my son couldn’t walk across the stage,'” said Family Connection CEO Amy Holbert. “And his dad uses the opportunity as kind of … these milestones where his child celebrated.”

Some attendees don’t have a connection to a child with Down syndrome. They come just to support the cause.

“I was always really moved and excited about how the mission impacts kids and families,” said Mila Burguss-Conway, a former Family Connection employee, “I used to help organize Buddy Walk. But since I left, I come back every year just because of how beautiful it is.”

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. And while Family Connection started as an organization to serve families of children with Down syndrome, it has grown to help families of children aged birth to 26 across all disabilities.

One of the main ways Family Connection serves families is through referrals, Holbert said. Referrals are when a parent, caregiver or professional reaches out to Family Connection for support. Self-advocates can also make referrals for themselves.

“Last year, we received 6,500 referrals for help, and that’s just for our one-on-one services,” Holbert said. “That’s a 93% increase in families reaching out for help since 2020, since COVID.”

The pandemic made it more difficult for families to navigate a diagnosis, she said.

The organization would not have been able to handle the increase in the need for help seen during the pandemic without volunteers and sponsors, Holbert said. 

And that increased need that has not leveled out, she said.

Family Connection is accepting volunteer applications on its website under the “Get Involved” tab. Referrals can be made under the “Referral” tab.

Family Connection CEO Amy Holbert hands a young child a medal.

Mila Burgess-Conway’s son plays the Kerplunk lawn game.

Buddy Walk participants follow a man with an American flag leading the way.