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Grown-Up Ambitions

Terps Run Expanding Program for Adults with Down Syndrome

By Charlie Wright

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Jeremy Thompson rose from his table at a Silver Spring, Md. restaurant and unleashed a Shakira-esque hip swivel to kick off the dance. He’d dressed himself in khakis and a button-down for the closing night of this program for adults with Down syndrome, and it wasn’t long before he joined in the sing-along to Meghan Trainor and the soul train to Katy Perry.

Credit: LiveUp“My favorite part is the music, dancing and karaoke,” Thompson, 28, says.

The party wrapped up the sixth annual weekend in D.C. organized by LiveUp Programs, a nonprofit co-founded and run by Terps to support adults with Down syndrome. Other programs this year took place in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and San Diego, with outings such as baseball games, cooking classes, museum tours, sailing and an acting workshops. In addition, each weekend includes a give-back component where the group volunteers together.

Jenna Aidikoff ’09, whose younger sister, Lauren, has Down syndrome, came up with the concept while volunteering as a UMD student with the national nonprofit Camp PALS, which offers overnight camps for young adults with Down syndrome.

She realized that as people like Lauren grow older, the chances for structured social outings declined. That got her and fellow PALS volunteers thinking.

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“After age 21, you’re no longer supported in the school system and your number of opportunities significantly drop off,” Aidikoff says. “[We] thought about what we liked with the young adult model and how wanted to make it more of an adult experience.”

More than 400,000 people in the U.S. have Down syndrome, and their life expectancy has risen steadily from 25 in 1983 to 60 in 2016, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. Many are waiting to be placed in a group home, or don’t have full- or even part-time jobs, often causing them to suffer from isolation.

Aidikoff and fellow co-founders Brian Atlas and Josh Stein set out to create a weekend-long program in D.C. in 2011 to provide a safe venue for people in the community to be themselves, learn something new, build confidence and independence, and have fun.

That inaugural event drew 16 participants, which has grown to 95 this year across the five programs, along with 200 volunteers, including mentors, medical staff, a finance team and videographers.

Aidikoff’s sister Kerri ’12 is a director of the Philadelphia program, and sisters Allie Weiss ’09 and Jaime Weiss ’12 are directors of the New York version. Eight other Terps serve as volunteers.

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Participants pay tuition between $675 and $800, and the program fundraises to cover the full costs of their experience as well as that of the volunteer mentors’.

This year the D.C. participants visited the Maryland Renaissance Festival and explored the museums along the National Mall, in addition to dinner and dancing at the Tavern at Fire Station 1. Plus, the pairs of mentors and participants were given an allotted amount of money to buy items for kits to be donated to a homeless shelter, giving the participants a chance to practice life skills and gain a better understanding of the real world, says Emily Weinberger, one of the city’s three directors.

“What separates LiveUp (is) we do try to get immersed in the community,” Weinberger says. “You’re not just taking a bunch of adults with Down syndrome bowling, you’re doing things with regular people.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.