Allow me to introduce you to George, he’s my pal. I see him every week at parkrun, he announces his arrival with a loud and cheery ‘A-a-a-a-n-n-n-n-e-!’ as he greets me with the warmest and loveliest hug. Every time I see him, he makes me happy.
He’s been one of our team of parkrun volunteers for some time now, collecting the tokens from the runners, cheering us all on, standing there in all kinds of weather. When he’s on duty, everyone returns their tokens.
He’s the first to admit that running’s not his favourite thing, he’d rather be on the stage, he’s rather a good actor, or in the audience at shows, theatre and pantomime. What that lad hasn’t seen isn’t worth seeing, he’s a regular aficionado, I learn so much from him. But back to running, he’s had a go at parkrun and is definitely improving. When he does run there’s an echo around the park as every runner cheers him on and encourages him.
Oh, by the way, George has Down’s Syndrome, it’s a genetic condition associated with learning disability. March 21 is World Down’s Syndrome Day, we’re all encouraged to show the world how people like George live and participate in the community alongside family, friends, peers and the public, using the hashtag #MyFriendsMyCommunity. In George’s case, that is so easy to do.
When I was a small child, half a century ago, there was a lad with Down’s lived nearby. Peter was kept inside most of the time, he didn’t play with the other children, because, you just didn’t play with boys like Peter, he was, well, different. Every day he was taken by bus to a school, while we skipped down the road past his house to ours. I wondered what that school would be like and if they played the same games as us. I’m ashamed of that memory now, it’s not good enough to say that was how we did things then in those unenlightened days when people with any disability, including my own sister, were put in homes, or kept separate. A friendly smile to him would have done just fine.
At 15, George is his own young man, he’s one of the team at our parkrun and one of our most regular volunteers, he even has a teeshirt to prove it. My life is enriched because I know George, the fact that he has Down’s is neither here nor there to me. He’s my pal and I love him. I fact, he’s everyone’s pal at parkrun, I suspect he’s everyone’s pal wherever he goes.
The Leeds Down’s Syndrome Network Sunshine and Smiles has sponsored a photographic exhibition at Kirkstall Abbey’s visitor centre. ‘I Am Me’ features photos of y0ung people with Down’s, naturally George is in there, in his parkrun tee-shirt.