The 25th annual New York City Buddy Walk kicked off Down Syndrome Awareness month last week with a virtual celebration in Times Square. The celebration should’ve culminated with a video presentation on the digital billboards in Times Square and included 500 photographs of individuals with Down syndrome, five of which from the Rio Grande Valley.
The video presentation was rescheduled to Sunday due to technical difficulties. Still, it did little to hinder the excitement of those selected to participate, including Aaron Jesus Zamora, 6, from Edinburg; John David Hernandez, 15 months, from Raymondville; Nahitza Anahí Hurtado, 19, from McAllen; Jackie A. Mata, 19, from Mission; and Viva Selena Lopez, 25, from Palmview.
Their families shared their reactions to being selected for the event and their experiences raising children with Down syndrome.
“It was amazing,” said Nina Mata, whose 19-year-old daughter, Jackie, was selected. “We feel very excited and honored to be chosen. This is a good way to do awareness for Down syndrome. My little girl was very happy. She thinks she’s a movie star.”
Jackie, of Mission, was one of the five Valley natives whose photos were selected to be shown in the video in Times Square. Even though they had to wait for the video to be shown on Times Square, participants were still able to see the video during the kickoff celebration.
“We need to spread the awareness and educate other people,” Nina said. “They’re not sick. They have a disability. We need to educate people. We want to make sure that everybody treats our children equally. Give them an opportunity and treat them equally.”
Yvonne Zamora said that being selected to participate in the event was her son, Aaron’s most exciting moment in his young life so far. She said that the event does a great job in showcasing the limitless potential of people with Down syndrome.
“He was so full of joy, sitting and waiting to see his picture come up,” Yvonne said. “He’s only 6, and he’s still trying to know what’s happening and what it truly means to have his picture shown. Once he saw his picture on that video. He was just ecstatic — so full of joy. It was just a great moment.”
Yvonne and her husband Javier refer to their son as their 37-week miracle since he was born at exactly 37 weeks.
“Having that extra chromosome doesn’t limit our children,” Yvonne said. “Yes, they are delayed in different aspects of learning and growth, but, my gosh, they are the most intelligent and loving human beings on earth. We’re very blessed to have him in our lives.”
Viva Selena Lopez has made a name for herself throughout the Valley with her dance moves and spunky personality. When she saw her picture during the video presentation, her mother, Mary Jane, said that Viva had “happy tears.”
“It was like a happiness that — you just get so proud,” Mary Jane said. “It felt great. She had the happy tears. I had the happy tears too. It was a pride that just stays with you.”
Mary Jane dubbed the five individuals selected from the Valley as the “Texas five.”
“I hope they get selected again for next year,” Mary Jane said. “I’m going to tell everyone to sign up. It’s a beautiful feeling. My daughter is downright perfect. It shows everybody awareness. These kids can do anything if you let them.”
“I’m so happy,” Viva said with her contagious laugh. “I’m so excited and happy tears.”
Nahitza Anahí Hurtado was selected to participate in the event last year with a group of her friends. Despite the changes made to this year’s event because of COVID-19, her mother, Elsa Cortina, said that she was still able to enjoy the experience.
“It’s exciting,” Cortina said. “It’s a different feeling, but regardless we celebrated on Zoom with our friends. We still did the virtual Buddy Walk with her. We got our shirts, we got her medal. She knows it’s all about her. She feels really special.”
Cortina said that even though there is more awareness about Down syndrome and people with disabilities nowadays, events such as the Buddy Walk are critical in educating people about their capabilities.
“Even though times have changed and we try to educate the community about it, it’s even better because New York is such a big city,” Cortina said. “People can see that they can do anything. Sometimes they don’t do it as quickly as everyone else, but they’re still able to do anything that everybody else can.”
The youngest to have been selected from the Valley was John David Hernandez, who is only 15-months-old. For his mother, Crystal A. Hernandez, she said that her worries about having a child with Down syndrome proved to be unfounded after the birth of her son.
“When I was pregnant I thought I was going to go crazy. I didn’t know what it was going to be like having a baby with Down syndrome,” Crystal said. “I think that’s every mother’s fear. You want the best for your child, but then you have them and they just exceed your expectations. He’s such a blessing.”
“You learn that all those fears you have during pregnancy are false,” she continued. “You finally have your baby, and you realize just how special they are. I think the walk, for me, was just confirmation of that.”
Crystal said that she was proud that her son was selected for the event just because it gave her the opportunity to spread awareness about people with the same disabilities.
“If I could reach any mom getting a diagnosis like that, I would just say, ‘Keep your baby,’” Crystal said. “They are such a joy, such a blessing. I think that’s what that walk really did. My community is really little, and John David is surrounded by love.”