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October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, which Deb Gavette says is important because of many misconceptions.

Clearing up misconceptions

People with Down syndrome can do more than people think, mother says

Deb Gavette, right, talks with daughter Samantha, 19, before a basketball game Sunday afternoon.
Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Samantha, who has Down syndrome, cheers after sinking a basket. She has many activities such as bowling and dance.

When 19-year-old Samantha Gavette gets home from school, she drops her purple and black Justin Bieber bookbag on the kitchen floor and walks toward her mother, standing in the adjoining family room.

“Can you … ?” her mother asks, and Samantha picks up the bag.

Samantha has beautiful hair – long and straight. And her eyes are a piercing blue.

But Samantha’s not what you think she’ll be at first glance, insists her mother, Deb Gavette. She may be more forgiving than most people, but she’s very shy, an uncommon trait for someone with Down syndrome. That said, after the bashful feelings pass – after she has spent time curled up at her mother’s side – she might just start to shout and laugh manically when she warms up to a stranger.

That those with Down syndrome are always cheerful people who want to hug everyone is one of the biggest misconceptions, Gavette says.

“People always just think, ‘Oh, they’re just happy people. They don’t get sad or angry,’ ” says Gavette, of Fort Wayne. “Sometimes, I correct them. Sometimes, I just laugh. But boy, she sure runs the gamut. She can throw a noisy fit like the rest of them.”

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and the fact that people with Down syndrome have moods just like anyone else is one thing Gavette wants others to be aware of.

She also points out that people with Down syndrome have their own personalities, and they’re able to do a lot more than people give them credit for.

What makes Samantha “Samantha,” for example, might be her extreme and crushing love for the actor John Stamos. It leads to her love of the Beach Boys and for those eight seasons of “Full House” on DVD that she watches all the time.

“So you’d be an Uncle Jesse fan?” she is asked.

“Yes,” Samantha says, smiling. “He’s hot.”

“What’s for dinner?” Samantha asks her mom.

“Pork on the grill,” Gavette says.

“Oh, please,” Samantha says.

“It’s the good kind,” Gavette says. “It’s bacon-wrapped.”

“Oh, please,” Samantha repeats. “Mashed potatoes?”

“No, pasta,” her mother replies.

She doesn’t approve of that, either.

Samantha is currently in her second junior year at Carroll High School.

The state allows students with disabilities to remain in high school through their 21st year, Gavette says. After this school year, Samantha will have two more years as a junior, before finishing up her high school career with one senior year.

Her favorite thing about high school, Samantha says, much to her mother’s surprise, is math.

“I got on the ‘hundreds chart,’ ” Samantha says by way of explanation, which is the list a student is added to when he or she gets a 100 percent on an addition quiz.

“I thought you’d say ‘foods,’ ” Gavette says, using the high school’s term for home economics. There, Samantha learns recipes and how to measure ingredients, and she learns how to make healthy food choices.

Samantha is in a special needs dance class and has been dancing for eight years. She plays basketball on Sundays with a league through Turnstone, and she bowls in the Special Olympics. In the spring, she runs track and field, which she calls the favorite of her activities.

Her mother is floored.

Track is your favorite?” she asks. “You’re shocking me today – math, track.”

When she’s not running, bowling or dancing, she might be found at the computer. She loves music and likes to look up videos by Miley Cyrus and, yes, the Beach Boys.

This month, she was co-grand marshal of the Buddy Walk, which raises money for the Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana. Gavette started the walk in 1999 with the goal of raising awareness for Down syndrome and money to help mothers with newly diagnosed babies by getting information in the hospitals.

At her first walk, Gavette hoped to raise enough money to cover what was spent. About 150 people showed up, and the event raised more than $1,000. This year, the Buddy Walk saw its largest crowd, between 1,300 and 1,500 people, and it raised more than $70,000. That money allows the group to put on events for kids with Down syndrome, like dances, and it lets it distribute packages of information to the hospitals.

When a baby is diagnosed with Down syndrome, Gavette says, the hospital bombards the parents with medical information. It’s necessary, yes, but it doesn’t help Mom and Dad with their non-medical questions: What will my life look like now? Will I still be able to do all those things I wanted to do? Can we still go on family vacations?

“(The point was) to say life was going to be OK,” Deb says. “Just because you have a child with disabilities doesn’t mean your life stops and (it doesn’t mean) you don’t do what you’d planned on doing.”

Samantha has been to Walt Disney World with her family – including siblings Blake, 17, and Hannah, 14 – Gavette says, and she’s been to beaches on the East Coast.

“I would say she’s pretty happy,” Gavette says. “I think if she could change something, she would change the fact that school starts so early in the morning.”