CARLSBAD — Smiles, laughter, free hugs, posters, crazy socks and T-shirts sporting “I Love My Homies With Extra Chromies” covered the campus of Kelly Elementary School on Saturday as part of World Down Syndrome Day.
It was a day where the kids took time to include, support and make friends with their peers. The only difference is a third copy of the 21st chromosome, commonly known as Down syndrome.
Tricia Benton organized the event at the school, which is held every year on March 21. Her two older children are special needs students including her daughter, Bailey, a first-grader.
Benton decided to make shirts celebrating the day, but what started as two prints soon exploded into 150, with other parents, teachers and kids sporting the new threads.
“I thought it would be really cool to get our school to do it,” Benton said. “One of the general ed teachers had his whole class make posters. The next thing I know everywhere I look there is stuff (shirts and posters).”
Principal Tressie Armstrong, meanwhile, has been preaching inclusion throughout her time at the school. The students have followed her lead and refusing to let kids such as Bailey Benton be excluded from making friends, playing together at recess and sharing lunch.
Another way these kids are being included is through the Kindness Club. And the club is growing in popularity.
“It just opens up the eyes of the children to look outside of themselves,” Armstrong said. “My favorite quote from one of the kids was, ‘We have a lot more similarities than differences.’”
Benton and Armstrong both said breaking down those barriers for students is just one step towards creating a more welcoming and friendly school. Benton said once the kids realize how to communicate and interact with special-needs kids, stereotypes and judgments tend to wash away.
However, it can be difficult, especially with nonverbal, special-needs children. Bailey, for example, also suffers from autism and cerebral palsy and born a micro preemie, meaning she was less the 2 pounds at birth.
Tricia Benton was told her daughter would never walk, but after years of working toward the goal, Bailey can now walk 10 steps unassisted.
“She’s getting a chance to interact more now, and it’s awesome,” Tricia Benton said. “I feel like kids are trying now.”
As for the Kindness Club, fourth-graders Hayden Ucker, 9, Brady Jessie, 10, and Malie Kotol, 10, said it is a way for them to help their friends with special needs. Also, it allows for the kids to learn about the conditions of the special needs kids, while making new friends.
“We wear crazy socks to help the special ed kids and support them,” Jessie said.
“To let them know we know that they are not invisible,” Kotol added.