2020 presented Down syndrome affiliates across the world with many challenges to overcome, and the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan (DSAWM) was no exception. Our organization serves 350 families across 12 counties in West Michigan. In addition to support services and advocacy, we also operate over 20 programs for members from birth to adulthood. We do this all with only 3 full-time staff members and several generous volunteers.
When concerns about covid-19 first surfaced in March 2020, we were about a week away from one of our biggest events of the year—our World Down Syndrome Day Dance. The decision to cancel this big community celebration was difficult, but we were certain that we would bring everyone together again at our Member Picnic that summer. …Obviously, covid had other plans. While we were able to safely re-introduce some socially-distanced, in-person programs in late summer, by the fall we were once again back in lockdown.
Fortunately, ours is a community well-versed in adaptability. By April 2020, we were already transitioning our most popular programs to a virtual format. Doing so not only kept our members engaged and gave them a means by which to socialize with friends, but also created greater accessibility for members in outlying counties who were often unable to attend our programs due to the long commute.
Throughout the summer, our staff worked diligently to modify our plans for our annual Step Up for Down Syndrome event. Ours is the largest Down syndrome awareness event in the state and our biggest fundraiser of the year. By offering opportunities to participate either virtually or in-person in limited capacity time blocks, we were able to engage 39 teams and over 700 walkers. Though less than half of our usual attendance, our community still came together in full force and helped us raise 85% of our fundraising goal. This was huge as other events around the state struggled to hit even 25% of their goals. We truly felt the support of our community that day.
Perhaps our most significant undertaking in 2020 was the decision to move locations. DSAWM has grown drastically in the past decade and we are now serving more members than ever before and nearly all our programs are running at capacity. While our service area includes 12 counties, we only have the resources to create life-changing programs in three. We know that with more resources and space we could be impacting so many more people. Moving from our small downtown office to the first-of-its-kind Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports and Inclusion Center is the first step towards realizing that goal. The move will: give us opportunities to reach more children, teens, and adults throughout our 12-county service area; allow us to partner with other existing agencies that serve those with physical or cognitive challenges by sharing space on the Special Olympics campus; and significantly raise our profile and visibility throughout the community. We are so excited for the sustainable growth that this move ensures for our organization and the endless possibilities it will create for our community.
As we continue to navigate the impact of covid-19, DSAWM remains committed to our mission: promoting public awareness and supporting lifelong opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. We have learned a lot over this past year, both in practice and from the feedback of our members. Some adaptations created in response to covid-19 will remain permanent changes to our operations. Virtual programming, for example, is something we plan to continue moving forward in response to the need for greater accessibility. We are also currently identifying ways that we can better serve underrepresented populations in our community. That means building better equity initiatives, improving outreach to POC and minority-focused community partners, and incorporating more inclusive and diverse programming.
DSAWM is always on the move to improve and the one benefit of the pandemic is that it has given us the opportunity to slow down a bit and identify ways that we can be better. We are so fortunate to serve a community that is eager to grow with us. Endless possibilities await!