In Tampa, Buddy Walk raises awareness, funds for Down syndrome, special needs community

As an emergency room nurse, Ann Foyt is used to critical thinking and analytical problem-solving.
But at 6:30 p.m. on  September 11, 1998, every sense of reasoning and rationality was gone. The algorithm of her heart was forever changed.
Still on the operating table, having given birth 120 seconds earlier, the first-time mom and her husband, Paul, were told that their son had Down syndrome.
"We cried," Ann says. "The nurses cried. Everyone in the room cried, as it felt like a death in a way."
Discharged twelve days later with her newborn Zachary in her arms, Foyt walked blindly into an uncertain future for the son she had dreamed of having since childhood.
"There was no social worker, no resources offered - I thought 'What am I gonna do?" she recalls.
She started with the phonebook.
"I just searched for support groups or any organization that could help me," Foyt says. "Resources seemed to be very limited and discussions of the special needs community weren't a frequently referenced subject."
Foyt met other families with Down syndrome children and started inviting them to her home each Thursday.
With that algorithm in her heart ever-changing and gaining momentum, the small weekly meetups led to community Halloween and Christmas parties.
"I didn't realize that I was starting a support group," Foyt says.
In 2014, Foyt intersected with the organization F.R.I.E.N.D.S. (Families, Respect, Inspire, Education, Networking, Down Syndrome Special Needs) and enthusiastically jumped in. 

"I wanted to do more,” she says.

And she has, as have Paul and her second son, Ethan.

She researched how to form a 501c3 non-profit and founded F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Down Syndrome, Special Needs - West Florida. Foyt, the charity’s executive director, has seen membership increase from 30 families to more than 1,000.

The organization is managed by volunteers who love and care for the Down Syndrome and special needs community, many of whom do not have family members of their own in the community.
"I've become obsessed with this organization, as have the dedicated volunteers," Foyt says. "From the moment I get up until the last breath I take before going to bed, I am constantly trying to improve upon services needed."
On Saturday, October 22nd the group held its sixth F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Buddy Walk at Al Lopez Park in Tampa. An estimated 3,500 people attended the day of music, dance and activities that culminated in a walk around the park.
The Buddy Walk was established in 1995 by the National Down Syndrome Society and is held in October to mark Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
During the event, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera spoke and presented a commendation to the organization. Every special needs athlete received a medal.
Teams competed to raise money for the services and programs provided by  F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Down Syndrome Special Needs - West Florida. Those programs include monthly dances at the Riverview Hilton Garden Inn and Clearwater's Holiday Inn Express.
"All are welcome," Foyt says. "We want to unite everyone in the special needs community while educating the public on Down Syndrome and those with special needs, as we all have so much more in common than many realize."
For more information, visit F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
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Read more articles by Kimberly DeFalco.