By Tim Ellsworth
ST. LOUIS (BP) – Tim Sitek was as excited as you’d expect any 3-year-old to be about seeing Fredbird, the burly, red St. Louis Cardinals mascot. Fredbird stole the attention at the Pujols Family Foundation’s third annual autumn prom event for teenagers and young adults with Down syndrome Oct. 23.
“Fredbird!” Tim exclaimed to me, pointing toward the dance floor.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” I replied. “Who do you like more, Fredbird or Albert Pujols?”
“Both!” he shot back with a grin.
But though Tim’s responses may have reminded me of those I might have heard from my 3-year-old daughter, he’s not 3. He’s 23. He has Down syndrome. And he was one of the special guests invited by the Pujols Family Foundation to get all dressed up for the formal event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Clayton.
It’s one of the year’s signature events sponsored by the Pujols Family Foundation, begun by the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman and his wife Deidre in 2005. Albert and Deidre have a daughter with Down syndrome, and they wanted to use their resources to make a difference in the lives of others with the same condition – like Tim.
Tim obviously was thrilled to be there. He was thrilled to meet me. And when he found out we shared the same first name, it was as if that were the best news he’d heard all year. He opened his mouth wide, smiled from ear to ear and smacked me on the shoulder.
It’s just one of the encounters I’ll remember from my time at the prom. Todd Perry, the foundation’s executive director, was kind enough to invite me and my friend Scott Lamb, a former book reviewer for The Pathway, to join them for the Oct. 23 event.
“I have no idea what to expect, do I?” I asked Perry a few hours before it began.
“No, you don’t,” he said. “It’s going to be wild.”
And he was right.
As the young people arrived at the hotel – many of them in limos – they walked into the lobby on a red carpet. A group of volunteers cheered each guest as they entered. Some came with dates. Some came with their parents. Some wore Cardinals hats with their tuxedos. Some gave high-fives to the greeters. And some began dancing before they even got in the door.
They had reason to be overjoyed. Perry said the prom gives young people with Down syndrome a chance to interact with their peers and celebrate who they are – Down syndrome and all.
Their population is a shrinking one, because ours is a society obsessed with perfection and devoid of a healthy appreciation for the beauty of all human life. Conservative estimates indicate that more than 90 percent of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.
So our culture is deprived of the honesty, the loyalty, the unbridled joy and the unconditional love that so often characterizes those with Down syndrome, those who despite their shortcomings bear the distinct image and imprint of their Creator.
As the party moved to the seventh-floor ballroom, the music blared, but the 400 in attendance didn’t mind. The Pujolses were there, but despite Albert’s status as the best baseball player in the world, Fredbird was by far the more popular attraction. The special guests got busy dancing, and the parents who brought them sat back and watched their children with satisfied smiles.
“This is heaven-sent,” Ron Hoskin, of St. Louis, told me. Ron is the father of Shawn, 24, who has Down syndrome. Ever since Shawn got an invitation in the mail from the Pujols Family Foundation, the prom has been an everyday topic of conversation.
Shawn got a shoe shine, a haircut and a bow tie. Ron chauffeured him to the prom in the family Cadillac, used only on special occasions. Then Shawn abandoned his dad in favor of the dance floor, but Ron didn’t mind a bit.
“It’s a treat for me as well,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one. I told Perry in the afternoon that I was expecting to be blessed that night.
And I was right.