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Down syndrome parents find strength in numbers

Eighteen years have passed since Ann Foyt gave birth to son Zachary, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.

With seven years of fertility struggles behind them, she and her husband were no strangers to adversity. However, they were given the diagnosis after a quick assessment from a doctor with no resources or additional support.

"It was a pretty devastating thing to learn that your child who you've been waiting on forever to finally arrive was going to have some difficulties in life," Foyt said. "And then to have no one talk to us just made us feel so alone. I don't think I stopped crying for three months."

When Zachary turned 1, Foyt, who is a registered nurse, decided to seek out other parents who had children with Down syndrome and form her own play group. Although there were only seven children involved, Foyt said meeting with other parents who were dealing with the same obstacles significantly lessened her concerns for her son's future.

"When I started meeting with other parents of children with Down syndrome, I knew we were going to be just fine," Foyt said. "I want to give that sense of community to other new parents who are learning to live with that diagnosis."

In 2014, Foyt joined F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Down Syndrome Tampa, a nonprofit organization that provides information, support and groups for families of children of all ages with Down syndrome.

That same year, she took the reins as president and assembled a team of volunteers to whom she credits much of the group's success.

"Tampa needs this because we have about 40 Down syndrome births each year," Foyt said. "We still have so many parents around the area who feel so alone, and we're making a small difference that hopefully will get bigger and bigger each year."

For Foyt and the rest of the organization, the most difficult part of making a difference as a nonprofit is fundraising — something they plan to improve upon, starting with their inaugural Buddy Walk at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday.

"We began planning it in January," said F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Tampa vice president Craig Woodard, who is heading up plans for the Buddy Walk. "We've been working hard to spread the word, and so many people wanted to get involved in this cause."

As of Thursday, the Buddy Walk had already raised more than $28,000 in donations from the community, not including the donated raffle prizes and entertainment.

"This Buddy Walk is bringing the Down syndrome community together, and we're making contacts with people who haven't been able to reach out to a group for support," Woodard said.

"We have almost 550 people attending this walk, and I was just expecting the bare minimum since it's just the first year."

Contact Kelsey Sunderland at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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