A 7-year-old boy with Down syndrome will be in the crowd when Chiawana High's football team makes a play for the state title Saturday.
After all, the Pasco football players have been cheering on and supporting the boy and others with special needs each year at the Buddy Walk, a fundraiser to raise awareness and acceptance of those with Down syndrome, as well to provide resources for them and their families.
The boy, Henry Fowler, is the son of Chiawana Assistant Coach Chris Fowler and a die-hard Chiawana football fan, regularly attending games the past three seasons.
The players adore Henry, and many of them participate in the Down Syndrome Association of the Mid-Columbia's annual Buddy Walk.
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This year, seniors Mark DeRuyter and Grady Graff are continuing a tradition of Chiawana football players working with the Buddy Walk for their senior project.
"It is a great experience. It is very rewarding," DeRuyter said. "Makes you get a different perspective on how you do stuff and how thankful you are."
Graff agreed: "(Henry) is all over the place when he is around us. It is a blessing. Henry had a great relationship with (former player) Jordan Downing. Jordan did a lot of good things for him. Now that Jordan is up at Eastern Washington University, (Henry) has kind of just shifted that attention to me and Mark and the rest of the football team."
"(I) thought it was kind of cool to carry on the tradition of doing stuff for him," DeRuyter said.
The players' dedication to the association and Henry "means a ton to me," Chris Fowler said. "I don't go solicit them, they come and ask me. I really appreciate the support. Not just the football team, but the whole community that gives support to our family.
"It's just real positive for our kids. Through that they learn all the stuff that kids with Down syndrome can do. It really spreads that word to a large group of people."
About 10 players participated the first year, said Zelene Fowler, Chris Fowler's wife and co-founder of the association. "And now -- it is bringing tears to my eyes just talking about it -- now there is a real community support. The whole team is out. It is amazing. The cheerleaders come, and also Pasco High's team comes. It is a real community feel."
Chris Fowler, a teacher at Chiawana High, balances his passion for coaching with being a dad and helping run the foundation. The Fowlers have taken a step back the past few years with the nonprofit, handing over most of the day-to-day duties to a board.
Tracie Winkelman of Richland, who serves on the board and the Buddy Walk committee, said she is glad to see the players participating.
"I think it is so heartwarming to see the younger generation of people get involved with supporting people with special needs," Winkelman said. "It is kind of surprising. They are mature beyond their age. And the fact that they want to help -- we really love it."
The Fowlers co-founded the association in 2006 with Aaron and Heather Jensen after finding out their son had Down syndrome.
The couple wanted to provide other families who received a similar diagnosis with a place to go.
"We wanted to bring education into the community and give them a welcoming community for them so they feel normal," Zelene Fowler said. "One thing you don't feel when you have a baby with a label is normal. You want to feel like you aren't alone, and that is what we wanted to provide families with in the community."
The foundation has been successful in raising awareness throughout the Tri-Cities, raising almost $80,000 at this year's Buddy Walk, held in October.
But it is about more than just money, it is also about creating awareness in the community about what people with Down syndrome can accomplish in life, the Fowlers said.
"It means that there is acceptance and tolerance," Zelene Fowler said. "We had almost 2,000 people this year. To see the high school players there, and genuinely wanting to hang out with Henry -- he is going to have a spot in high school. He is going to be accepted. It is heartwarming."
Henry already has a spot with this year's Chiawana team.
He has attended almost every game, and has watched the ones he missed online. And he'll be at the Tacoma Dome today to root for DeRuyter, Graff and the rest of the team as well.
w Craig Craker: 582-1509; firstname.lastname@example.org; @Twitter: Craig_Craker