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Furman’s Special Connections to Down Syndrome Awareness Night

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Furman assistant coach John Winters wore wacky socks last year to support World Down Syndrome Awareness Day. Winters wanted to show solidarity with fellow Furman assistant, Amanda Hayes, whose 17-year-old sister has Down syndrome.

Little did Winters know how much closer to home the impact would eventually make. 

Less than a month later, his son, Walker, was born with Down syndrome. The diagnosis was a surprise to Winters and his wife, Laura. They had genetic tests and heart scans performed throughout the pregnancy, but the doctors thought everything was normal. 

“We were incredibly shocked because there was nothing before he was born that prepared us for it,” Winters said. “You have this idea in your head of the path for your child. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s just a different path, and to be honest, I wouldn’t change a damn thing.”

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused when abnormal cell division results in an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21. This extra genetic material causes the developmental changes and physical features of Down syndrome. Individuals with Down syndrome have lifelong intellectual disabilities and developmental delays.

Given the program’s close ties to the disorder, Furman is holding Down Syndrome Awareness Night at Pepsi Stadium on Wednesday for its doubleheader against Presbyterian College. Admission is free, and the program has invited the Down syndrome community in the greater Greenville, South Carolina area to attend. 

World Down Syndrome Day is Thursday, March 21. The date was selected to signify the uniqueness of the triplication of the 21st chromosome. It’s celebrated by wearing colorful or mismatched socks. The idea is for people to notice the socks and provide a chance to spark a discussion to raise awareness.

During Furman’s Awareness Night, the Paladins will be holding a wacky socks contest and sharing facts about Down syndrome throughout the games. Fans will have a chance to run the bases between games, and get autographs and pictures with the players. Hayes’ sister, Nadalie, will be throwing out the first pitch. 

“She has never done anything like that before,” Hayes said. “She has come to the field and hits and does stuff with me quite a bit. I don’t know how she will handle the crowd. Maybe she will love it. Hopefully, she won’t be too nervous to throw.”

Hayes is one of seven children. She is the third-oldest at age 31 and Nadalie is the youngest. Nadalie lives with their parents in Pickens, South Carolina. 

“Because of the age gap, it almost feels like she’s not just a sibling, but that you are a parent. I have a very close relationship with Nadalie, second to my parents,” Hayes said. “There is a lot of separation anxiety with Down syndrome kids and I am definitely the person she calls and Facetimes when she misses mom or dad.”

John and Laura Winter with Walker (Contributed Photo)

Furman head coach Stacey Johnson-Whitfield has been heartened by her team’s embrace of bringing awareness to Down syndrome. The players consider 11-month-old Walker like their own little brother. She’s hoping they can away take lessons from him that will benefit them in all aspects of life.

“It’s important for them to see the development of a child with Down syndrome. Instead of seeing limitations, I want them to see how much they can grow and accomplish,” Johnson-Whitfield said. “Walker is so little, but he is really doing things that weren’t necessarily expected of him. It shows you can’t put limitations on anything.”

Walker was born last April on a day Furman had a Saturday doubleheader. Once the doctors discovered his Down syndrome diagnosis, he was transported to Greenville Memorial Hospital and spent 52 days in the NICU. Walker had three holes in his heart, obstructive sleep apnea, and trouble swallowing. He’s endured four surgeries, including one open heart surgery, and has a port in his stomach to feed him milk.

Despite all he’s gone through, Walker is rarely without a smile on his face.

“Everything is positive with Down syndrome kids. They don’t let the world, or anything, change their view,” Winters said. “A lot of them are incredibly confident in themselves and love their life. It’s really just beautiful to see.”

Hayes has witnessed how much meeting someone or having a family member with Down syndrome can change a person’s perspective.

“It brings such joy to your life and who they are changes you so much for the better,” she said. “It’s been such a blessing for our family.”

The Furman team has been involved with the Miracle League for several years, helping children with disabilities play baseball. During a recent road trip, the players visited two Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shops, which are run by people with disabilities. 

The Paladins are hoping Down Syndrome Awareness games can become a regular part of their annual schedule. They want Walker, Nadalie, and every other individual with the disorder to know they have a large support system ready to help.

“It’s going to have an absolutely massive impact. My wife and I are incredibly thrilled about this,” Winters said. “It’s something we want to continue to grow and get more kids in the Down syndrome community involved and continue to bring awareness to everyone.”

Rhiannon Potkey can be reached at [email protected]