October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, but Kelly Peoples, Executive Director of Down Syndrome Alabama (DSA), thinks it’s time to move beyond awareness. “Now I want to push advocacy and inclusion,” she says. Kelly, a proud mother of three, has dedicated her career to serving others. Before she took the helm at DSA, she worked for The Bell Center. Before that, she served at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In 2020, Kelly was named the executive director of Down Syndrome Alabama, which is headquartered in Birmingham but has satellite programs across the state. On Sunday, October 24, DSA will host Step Up for Down Syndrome, an annual walk and fundraiser for the organization that will also feature fun family-friendly activities. We’re honored to introduce our newest FACE of Birmingham, Kelly Peoples of Down Syndrome Alabama.
You started at Down Syndrome Alabama in January 2020. How did you have to pivot your plans for the organization due to COVID?
I actually appreciated the downtime. I found that there were a lot of things I wanted to change foundationally with this organization. We have seven satellites across the state, and they were just kind of out there. I wanted to pull them back in. And I redid the board of directors, started a junior board, and redid some bylaws. It worked out great for us as an organization to be able to stop, pause, breathe, redo, and build.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
We definitely want to continue building with our members. We know there are tons of families in our area with a child or sibling or other individual with Down Syndrome, and we don’t know them, and we want to know them. We also want to get into the schools. One of the things that we’ve found is that some of our school systems across the state are outdated with the things that they do with their students with Down Syndrome. We want to go in and help educate — not just the teachers because I think they’re doing a great job, but also students.
We definitely want to push inclusion. In 2021 we’re still saying “Down Syndrome Awareness Month,” but I think by now everyone knows what Down Syndrome is or knows someone with Down Syndrome or at least has seen a person with Down Syndrome. Now I want to push advocacy and inclusion. They have feelings just like we do, and when they get treated different, they know it. We just want to make sure that they are treated just like typical people.
Tell us more about Step Up for Down Syndrome.
This is our annual walk, and we’re going to have it in three locations this year (Hoover, Tuscaloosa, and Auburn). It is definitely a fundraiser, but it’s also our time to wrap up Down Syndrome Awareness Month with a big, fun get-together. And I think this year it’s going to mean so much more because the Down Syndrome population are very affectionate people, and they love to hang out with each other, and they love their friendships, and they want to get together. Most haven’t seen their friends since COVID started.
What’s something you wish more people understood about Down Syndrome?
The only thing that separates a person with Down Syndrome from a typical person – and we don’t say “normal,” we say “typical” – is that they have an extra chromosome. They have 47 instead of 46. They have a third copy of their 21st chromosome. That’s the one that gives you some of your physical characteristics like your eye color, hair color, or skin color.
We have one young man — one of our great self-advocates who’s in his 30s now — who graduated from Oak Mountain with a general education diploma, not a special education diploma. His name is Daniel Chaplin, and he just completed his 32nd half-marathon. His goal is to run a half-marathon in all 50 states. I’m not saying everybody’s going to be able to run a half-marathon – I couldn’t do it. But people with Down Syndrome are completely able to do things that typical individuals can do. They just do things a little different sometimes. I spoke with a young lady who has Down Syndrome who’s in her 30s and she said, ‘Kelly, people talk to me like I’m a baby.’ They just want to be treated like a typical person.
And we’re very much into people-first language. So, it’s not a “Downs kid” or “the Down Syndrome child” or “the Down Syndrome boy.” It’s “the boy who happens to have Down Syndrome,” or “That’s Zack. He has Down Syndrome.” They are people first, and their diagnosis is just a part of them.
What words of encouragement would you offer to parents who have a child with Down Syndrome?
I would let them know that it is going to be okay. The road might be a little different than what they had planned, but the road is going to be just fine. And their journey is going to be so special.
I encourage parents to reach out to us and let us put them in touch with parents who have been in those shoes, who have had the same questions and worries and struggles. It could be lonely if none of their friends have a child with Down Syndrome. So, I encourage them to link up with us or somebody else with Down Syndrome so that they can feel like they’re a part of that family.
What can people do to be more supportive of individuals and families affected by Down Syndrome?
Treat them like they would anybody else. Include them.
If you know someone who’s just learned their new baby has Down Syndrome, celebrate the baby. Congratulate them. Don’t say, “I’m sorry.” That will really hurt a new mom’s heart. Say “Congratulations! I’m so happy for your new baby.”
It’s not a bad thing. I know that’s easy for me to say, but I have a whole tribe of moms who say they wouldn’t change a thing. Their worlds have been forever blessed. And if you’ve been around these kiddos you understand why. They’re great!
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
All I do is spend time with my family. We love going to the movies. The last two summers we did field-trip-Friday, and we’d go somewhere in the state. We like to explore. We went to the King’s Chair at Oak Mountain. We went to Moss Rock Preserve in Hoover. We went strawberry picking. We’ve been to Alabama Safari Park and to Alabama Splash Adventure.
What’s the best life advice you have to give?
Slow down. Slow down at work. Slow down at home.
Name three fun or frivolous things you can’t live without.
Coffee, my cell phone, and ChapStick.
Thank you, Kelly! All photos courtesy of Kelly Peoples.
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