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October is Down Syndrome awareness month! If you don’t know, Down Syndrome is a condition that occurs when a child is born with an extra chromosome. According to the CDC, about 1 in 700 babies are born with Down Syndrome and it can affect anyone, regardless of race or background. To learn more about the resources West Michigan has to offer such folks, we sat down with Roshelle Seals, Vice President of the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan.

The Down Syndrome  Association of West Michigan (DSAWM) is a non-profit organization started by a group of parents of children with Down Syndrome back in 1985. They provide resources for people with Down Syndrome and their families. The DSAWM provides programs for people of all ages and aims to advocate and spread awareness about Down Syndrome to the community. Currently, they have over 300 members from all over West Michigan.

When her daughter, Addison, was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth, Roshelle wanted to educate herself so she could support Addie and be her biggest advocate. So, she joined the DSAWM. Immediately, Roshelle noticed there weren’t any other families of color. “There weren’t any families that looked like us,” she explained. “Statistically, brown and black families don’t get connected with resources that are out there.” 

At first, this discouraged Roshelle from sticking with the DSAWM, but then she decided to take matters into her own hands. After leaving the organization for a while, she came back as the Vice President, determined to connect other families of color with the resources that the DSAWM has to offer. To help with this, Roshelle started 21 Shades, a program to support families of color and multicultural families who are a part of the Down Syndrome community. Thanks to Roshelle, these families get to connect with other families like them to know that they’re not alone. “We laugh and we cry and we’re there for each other. The best part is that they get where we’re coming from.”

We asked Roshelle what advice she had to parents whose child has received a diagnosis (of Down Syndrome or otherwise). “Well, first I’d say congratulations!,” exclaimed Roshelle. She then went on to explain the importance of connecting with other families going through the same thing. Her favorite event put on by the DSAWM is their annual fundraiser called Step Up for Down Syndrome. This event is a great opportunity to meet folks of all ages with Down Syndrome and their families. “As a mom myself, it gives me hope,” she explained, “Seeing families like mine just ‘doing life’ makes you realize ‘Oh! We can do this!”

Lastly, Roshelle stressed the importance of not limiting people with Down Syndrome and not putting them in a box. “Addie is more like her peers than they think she is,” she said, “It’s easy to get wrapped up in all of the therapy and programs. Slow down, take a deep breath and know that they’ll get there. It might be the scenic route, but they’ll get there. We’re all more alike than different.”