Alexandra Carter doesn't lack for social skills. In fact, unlike many teenagers with Down syndrome who may struggle to find their places among social groups and peers, Alexandra is outgoing and vivacious.
It wasn't always that way, though, says her mom, Latondria Spence. As a little girl, Alexandra shied away from crowded places. Hoping to promote her daughter's independence and confidence, Latondria began signing up Alexandra for everything she thought her daughter might enjoy, anything that might bring her out of her shell and into the world. Modern dance, ballet, gymnastics -- no activity was off limits if she thought it would make Alexandra happy.
Fast forward to age 15, and it seems her strategy has paid off. Alexandra -- who also has a disorder called alopecia, which causes severe hair loss -- exudes self-confidence and energy and is incredibly comfortable in her own skin. She also thrives in school and church, where she participates in worship through singing and expressive dance. But still, Latondria says, finding social opportunities for kids with Down syndrome can be challenging -- a fact supported by statistics. One London-based research study, for instance, estimates that only 17 percent of children with the disorder play with friends outside of school.
Latondria, however, wanted Alexandra to have a chance to build friendships with other teenagers who shared common ground. So when the family learned about the Brightside Down Syndrome Mentoring Program at Kennedy Krieger Institute, they were immediately on board.
Launched several years ago under the leadership of social work director Mary Snyder-Vogel, Brightside connects teenagers with Down syndrome with young adult mentors who also have the disorder. "The whole premise is to encourage success by showing them that people with Down syndrome can be successful," Vogel says. "They go to school, they have jobs. We want these kids to see these older ones succeeding and say, 'Hey, if they can do this, I can do this.'"
So far, Latondria says, Brightside has been a huge hit with her daughter, who first began attending last year. Her first outing with the group was bowling, followed by a yoga session the next month. Brightside, Latondria says, offers the socialization and camaraderie she wanted for Alexandra, while still encouraging good speech and social skills through the presence of a speech therapist and social worker during activities. "Brightside engulfs the whole individual," she says, "and I like that."
According to Vogel, Alexandra is not only an excellent asset to the program as a teenage participant, but she's the kind of young woman who could one day make an excellent mentor. "She is just a ray of sunshine," Vogel says. "She's bright and has a real presence about her. Your hope is this group will help foster peer relationships and build self-esteem. Some kids come in with that -- Alexandra certainly did. But it's also about teaching them to appreciate who they are for what they are. And that being who they are is absolutely okay."