A Support System for Budding Athletes with Down Syndrome

Bringing Up Down Syndrome (BUDS) preps kids with Down syndrome for Special Olympics—plus other hurdles that life may put in their way.

bringing up down syndrome

Nancy Hennefer with her son, Brad, at the annual Buddy Walk fundraiser in Washington Lake Park. Photo courtesy of Bob Hennefer

The athletes lunge down the indoor track at the Training Room in Cherry Hill. It’s no easy task. Weighted pull sleds slow their progress. But these are Special Olympics athletes with Down syndrome—and they are determined.

In many ways, the athletes embody the goal of Bringing Up Down Syndrome (BUDS), a Voorhees-based affiliate of both the National Down Syndrome Congress and National Down Syndrome Society. Some of the athletes have participated in BUDS since infancy.

“Success [to BUDS] means you’re living a happy, balanced life with social activities like this,” says Nancy Hennefer, treasurer and social-programs chairperson of BUDS. “You’re staying physically fit, have friends, and you’re experiencing life.” 

On this day, Hennefer’s son, Brad, 31, is training with fellow BUDS athletes, who play on the basketball, soccer, golf, bowling and newly formed bocce teams that BUDS sends to Special Olympics New Jersey. They also sponsor a swim team. But if you ask Hennefer, it’s less about competition than “smiling and having a great time together.” 

bringing up down syndrome
The Hennefers have been a part of BUDS, an all-volunteer organization that serves Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties, since Brad was just a few days old. Hennefer has seen the group grow from a few families to a network that serves more than 300 families each year.  

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In addition to promoting physical fitness, BUDS hosts events to raise awareness about Down syndrome and provide a social outlet for BUDS participants. The organization’s largest annual event is the Buddy Walk, the nonprofit’s only fundraiser. Held in October, the mile-long walk and subsequent celebration drew 200 volunteers and raised some $100,000 in 2019.

Hennefer says funds go directly to families of people with Down syndrome. A portion of the funds covers registration fees for the annual National Down Syndrome Congress convention. Attendees learn about laws and inclusion initiatives that can help children with Down Syndrome integrate into their communities—something for which BUDS members also rely on each other.

“We lean on each other,” says Hennefer. “We’ve watched [our children] navigating a school system, and we’ve advocated to have them included in regular classes when it’s the right fit. We’ve all grown together.”   

While BUDS is not looking to expand beyond the four counties it serves, chairperson Paul Williams hopes the group can broaden its impact by empowering the next generation of advocates.

Bill Scully, a BUDS coach, adds, “For a new parent, this is a wonderful way to know that you have support. You’re not alone. You get involved with the organization, and you’re surrounded with people that help you navigate.”

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