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More Alike than Different: 21 United hosts third-annual summer camp

Children with Down syndrome and their families shared a getaway this past weekend during the third-annual Down syndrome summer camp at Camp Hopewell.

The camp is organized by 21 United of Mississippi, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the inclusion, value and acceptance of individuals with Down syndrome. Jenny Rayner, part of the three-family group who founded the organization, said the camp is a way for her son James, 8, to meet other children like himself.

“It’s such a good feeling as a parent to be able to bring their kids to something like this, and to be able to go to a parent session and learn about something related to Down syndrome and know that your kids are taken care of and having fun,” Rayner said. “The siblings get to meet and mingle with each other, and that’s good, too. They can see that they’re not alone, that they’re not the only one with a sibling with special needs.”

Eight families were in attendance for this year’s camp, and newly appointed Ole Miss basketball coach Kermit Davis also made an appearance with his wife and their daughter, Ally. At 30 years old, Ally spoke with parents and siblings and provided some tips of her own about growing up with Down syndrome.

Other guests at this year’s camp were experts from the University of Mississippi’s linguistics and communications sciences and disorders departments. During parent sessions, the experts were able to discuss methods of communicating with a child with special needs as well as address concerns parents may have.

Scott Thompson, president of 21 United, attended the camp with his wife, Mary, and their son Samuel. For the Thompson family, being part of a community who understands the struggles and triumphs they face every day, regardless of how small they seem, is a tremendous benefit of the camp.

“Friday night, we talked about the issues we were having, to see if we were walking in the same footsteps,” Thompson said. “I brought up that we were having issues with Samuel grinding his teeth, and every one of them started nodding their heads. It’s good to know that you’re not the only one walking this path.”

Families came from as far as Birmingham, Ala. and New Albany to attend the camp, which is something both Rayner and Thompson said they were proud of.

Campers were treated to activities like canoeing, swimming, crafting and even a giant slip-and-slide – all summertime mainstays Rayner admitted she didn’t know if her son would be able to do when he was younger. However, James has proven to be resilient, she said, having recently won a battle against leukemia. Being in a place where children can just be themselves, away from distractions, she said, is a key part of the camp.

“We had some bad weather on Friday, but we turned it into a dance party. My son had the best time, and he got to play DJ, calling out the music he wanted to listen to,” Rayner said. “Sometimes it can be hard, as parents, to go out with their child who’s a little bit different. You don’t know how they’re going to behave, you don’t know what they’re going to do, and it’s always in the back of my mind. But being here, we can all just be ourselves.”

The families in attendance weren’t the only ones who benefitted from the camp, however. A host of counselors were there, each paired with a child to offer support and encouragement over the weekend.

Ali Walker, whose aunt and uncle own Camp Hopewell, started helping with the 21 United camp three years ago, and returned this year to volunteer with one camper, her friend Abby Rose. It was an unexpected friendship, Walker explained, as the two were randomly assigned during the first year of the camp, but it’s one Walker said has changed her life for the better.

“We got each other’s numbers, and Abby Rose and I text each other throughout the year about how excited we are for camp,” Walker said. “It’s been really cool to see the differences between all the kids. There are so many stereotypes where people assume they’re so similar, but it’s been really cool to see how individual they all are. 21 United’s whole motto is ‘More alike than different,’ and that’s what this camp really shows.”

Throughout the year, 21 United hosts other events, including a Christmas party and their main fundraiser, Buddy Walk. Proceeds from Buddy Walk, which takes place in the fall, go toward funding the summer camp program.