Local boy is grand marshal for this year’s Buddy Walk

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

On Sunday, October 16, 14-year-old Claremont High School freshman Gabriel Jovel-Acock will be living the dream.

The local boy with Down syndrome will lead participants around Memorial Park, 840 N. Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont, as the grand marshal for this year’s National Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk, organized by the Inland Valley Down Syndrome Association. The event kicks off at 10 a.m.

The nationwide Buddy Walk was founded by NDSS in 1995. It celebrates and promotes Down syndrome awareness, connecting families with nonprofit organizations and medical professionals that specialize in helping those with special needs, and acts as a fundraiser for the nonprofit.

Gabriel’s family said the walks are important for those in the Down syndrome community.

“A lot of people with kids with down syndrome, the first thing they do when they move to a town is figure out when the Buddy Walk is and go there,” said Anthony Acock, Gabriel’s father, and a Cal Poly Pomona professor. “That’s sort of your introduction to the entre down syndrome community within a 500-mile radius. People travel up from San Diego or down from Yucaipa just to come to the Buddy Walk.”

“Being included and having typical peers and feeling like a part of the community is important because this is where he lives,” said Gabriel’s mother, Lourdes Jovel-Acock. “If you see him at the bakery, you’re not scared to say hello. There are times where we have people that stare, but you know, it’d be nice if they just came up and said hello. Just being able to bring that exposure to people I think helps both Gabe and them as well.”

Claremont’s Buddy Walk festivities begin at 10 a.m. Sunday with participant check-in. Attendees are invited to network with vendors before the walk begins at 11 a.m. Afterward, vendors will provide information about various services, and offer live music, photos with Disney characters, balloon artistry, face painting, carnival games, and a silent auction.

Participation fees start at $35, but individuals with special needs are free. To register or donate to the walk, visit classy.org/event/ivdsa-buddy-walk-2022/e405301. T-shirts and food (courtesy of the Claremont Kiwanis Club) will be on sale starting at $5.

Asked how Gabriel wound up as grand marshal for this year’s walk, his mother said it was a combination of fundraising and him being involved with the organization. The thing that clinched it, his mother says, was that he showed up in nearly every photograph with Kimmy Boyett, IVDSA’s grand marshal for the 2021 Buddy Walk.

“Gabriel really enjoyed all the pictures and attention she was getting,” she said. “It’s kind of funny because families would get together to pose in front of their car or whatever and Gabe would go and get in the picture too.

“And Kimmy, since she was the grand marshal, she was doing a lot of that where she was part of the pictures. And he [signed] ‘Oh, okay, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.’ And so, he wanted to be a part of that. I think the attention is going to be fantastic for him.”

Gabriel, who is nonverbal and communicates via American Sign Language, enjoys cooking, school, swimming, baseball, and horseback riding. His mother, who is also the events and workshop coordinator for IVDSA, said one thing he can’t get enough of is positive attention — which is what he’ll receive in droves on Sunday.

“Gabe loves attention in terms of praise,” his mother said. “If he could have a whole cheerleading team behind him, he would be in heaven.”

Walks typically take place throughout the month of October, also known as Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and are organized by NDSS’s affiliated branches such as IVDSA and the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles. This weekend marks the beginning of Buddy Walks in California.

California’s final walk, hosted by the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County, will take place at the Santa Ana Zoo, 1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana, on Sunday, November 6.

“Buddy Walk is once a year, so it’s a little like Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Gabriel’s father said. “Caliber wise, it’s a little bit abstract [for Gabe] until it’s there. So, on the day of, he’ll get in the car and go for a car ride. We’ll get there and he’ll go, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’”

Last year, the local walk hit its fundraising goal of $50,000 and this year the organization is shooting for that same goal. Lourdes said the money goes back to the nonprofit’s general fund and helps pay for the Rancho Cucamonga office building’s rent as well as various courses and programs IVDSA hosts.

The organization is primarily Down syndrome focused, but it does welcome anyone with special needs to attend its classes and functions. Classes at IVDSA including virtual kickboxing and hybrid yoga. To learn about more or sign up for IVDSA’s courses, visit ivdsa.org/connect.

For more information about IVDSA’s Buddy Walk, visit classy.org/event/ivdsa-buddy-walk-2022/e405301. Sponsors for IVDSA’s event include Amira’s Pinky Promise, Chipotle, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Kings, Disney, Farmer Boys, Farmer John, and many more.

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