The 22nd annual GRADSA Buddy Walk begins at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 28 McConnell Plaza. The Green River Area Down Syndrome Association or, ‘GRADSA’ for short, is a local organization that provides supports and services to those with Down syndrome and their families.
One of the many highlights at the annual event are performances by the association’s two dance teams. The Pop Stars is a dance team limited to individuals between the ages of five and 12, while the Star Squad is reserved for individuals 13 and older. The organization also collaborates with the Owensboro Dance Studio for a program called ‘Rising Stars.’
The two dance teams are coached by Samantha Payne and Micah Swift. When they aren’t coaching dance, Payne serves as a speech-language pathologist at Wendell Foster, a career Swift is also aspiring to enter.
“Coaching these kids is the best job in the world,” Swift said. “It’s amazing to witness their progress first hand, and it’s a primary reason that I entered the field of SLP.”
The two essentially lucked into the coaching job at GRADSA. Payne was the head coach of the Owensboro Catholic Acettes, while Swift was a member when they first encountered the Star Squad at a local dance competition. Amazed by the performance, they approached the coach at the time and expressed an interest in assisting. The coach at the time was looking for someone to turn the program over to and decided on Payne and Swift.
“I’ve been a dancer my whole life,” Swift said. “It was love at first sight for me. The comradery, creativity, and innovation that they possess is amazing.”
The group’s motto is, ‘To watch me dance is to hear my heart speak,’ something that they emphasize in all of their performances.
“Dance is a powerful tool for communication,” she said. “These performances are an opportunity for people not impacted by special needs to truly witness what the individuals have to offer. We want to hold the community to higher expectations.”
GRADSA executive director, Tiffany Thrash added that the Buddy Walk is much more than a fundraiser. It is the organization’s goal that the Buddy Walk will propel local businesses to recognize the value that individuals with Down syndrome can bring to the community.
“Buddy Walk is a celebration of all things Down syndrome,” she said. “It’s the time we can show the community how talented and capable our individuals with Down syndrome are – our GRADSA dance teams are front and center because they are a shining example of the beauty, joy, and blessing loving someone with Down syndrome is to our lives as well as the community.”
The Popstars consist of five members while the Star Squad boasts 15. Both teams dance to a variety of genres with hip-hop and lyrical serving as their favorites. Young and Swift learned to take more of a facilitator approach just a few practices in when they witnessed their team’s creative minds first hand.
“We give them the choreography and they take it and run with it,” Swift said. “We are always cutting up and having a good time – on the busiest of days, practice is the best escape. It’s rewarding to see their progress. They bring me so much joy.”
The teams regularly perform at local sporting events, the Color Blast 5K, the Buddy Walk, concerts at the convention center, special needs expositions, and Friday After 5.