UPDATE: Tyler picked up his award in Central Park on September 17. Tyler’s mom Kathy Caldwell says, ” Our trip was so exciting and we had so much fun.” They cut their trip a little short because of the bombing in New York on September 17 and returned home via rental vans, not taking any chances, “but still wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
VINTON–By all accounts, Tyler Caldwell of Vinton is an amazing young man. He has become a celebrity in the Roanoke area and across the state as the face of the Roanoke City Police Department Growth Through Opportunity (GTO) program, and for his achievements in Special Olympics and other sports organizations.
This Friday he will become a national celebrity when he travels to New York to receive the prestigious Dan Piper Award from the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) at their annual Buddy Walk in Central Park. He will even be appearing on the Jumbo screen in Times Square in a video for the NDSS which will be shown around the world.
The Dan Piper Award was established to commemorate a young man with Down Syndrome from Iowa. Piper had an inclusive education and demonstrated to the public school system that “people with Down Syndrome are not only intelligent but are contributing members of the community through participation in extracurricular activities.” Piper was employed, had many friends in the community, and many extraordinary accomplishments, such as testifying before Congress on behalf of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The award specifically recognizes an adult with Down Syndrome “who through everyday activities brings about a greater public awareness and understanding of people with Down Syndrome in his or her community.”
Family friend and Montgomery County special education teacher Dawn Martin asked to nominate Tyler for the Dan Piper award. They met at Barnes and Noble through the Down Syndrome Association program for adults with Down Syndrome who enjoy reading. The group meets at the Valley View store to read chapter books and do crafts. That led to friendship outside of the program. In fact, Martin and Tyler became such fast friends that he walked her down the aisle when she was married at Explore Park last year. They surprised guests by walking to the traditional wedding march partway and then breaking into a dance to “Happy” the rest of the way.
Martin said that it was difficult for her to describe Tyler in the one page she was allowed for the nomination. She began by mentioning “the breadth of his passion for life seen in his endless participation efforts and immense influence on others.”
“From the beginning Tyler laid the foundation toward acceptance as he was the first student with special needs to be included in regular education classes in his school district,” wrote Martin.
She went on to say that he paved the way for others by showing that he was capable of acquiring and using the same skills as those without a defined disability. His outgoing personality led to his acceptance by both peers and staff. “Down Syndrome does not define or limit who Tyler is.”
Another first for Tyler was being invited to join the original class of the Growth Through Opportunity program with the Roanoke City Police Department in November 2014. The purpose of the GTO program, initiated by Officer Travis Akins, was twofold–to provide job training for individuals with disabilities and to introduce law enforcement officers to the world of those with special needs.
Akins had worked in training police on how to deal with people with autism in emergency situations and took part in autism awareness campaigns. He wanted to do more and came up with the GTO volunteer program for special needs adults interested in law enforcement. The reality is that there are not enough opportunities for special needs adults for employment or support after they graduate from high school.
As a GTO cadet, Tyler was trained for office tasks such as filing, shredding, and alphabetizing records. He also completed community outreach reading to elementary school students and giving presentations to the local bar association, organizations, and businesses.
The Dan Piper Award recognizes Tyler’s contributions to the community.
For years Tyler has been participating in Challenger Little League baseball for individuals with special needs and in their fundraising events.
He has competed in Special Olympics in basketball, softball, track and field, and bowling (which is his current favorite). He bowls in a league at Lee Hi Lanes from October to March each year.
He was on the Special Olympics state championship team for Division 5 basketball, which went undefeated for a whole season. He has plans to add Special Olympics golf to his list of activities.
He frequently carries the torch in opening ceremonies for special events and is asked to wear his GTO police uniform and stand with local law enforcement across the state.
His mother Kathy says his interest and skills in sports may be inherited. His grandfather William Gerald “Pete” Fuqua was a talented athlete at William Byrd High School, graduating in 1942.
Tyler graduated from William Byrd in 2010, but continued there with his schooling until he turned 22 in 2012.
Amy Boush who was one of his teachers at WBHS says, “He is an amazing kid with an equally amazing mom who makes sure he stays involved in programs and social events in the community.”
Tyler is a busy young man aside from his sports and appearances as a GTO alumna at special events. He is employed at the Bonsack Kroger as a bagger and courtesy clerk. He has earned two pins for exceptional customer service in his year there.
He spends two or three days a week at Katie’s Place, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing independence opportunities for young adults with special needs. He was asked to serve on their board as well. Katie’s Place provides day support, job counseling, and family support for adults with disabilities.
As for this weekend’s events, the Buddy Walk was established in 1995 by the NDSS to celebrate Down Syndrome Awareness Month and to promote acceptance and inclusion of individuals with Down Syndrome.
Tyler, his mother, and about a dozen friends and supporters (ages 16 to 70) will be catching Amtrak in Lynchburg to New York for the ceremonies. They have booked rooms at a hotel in the Times Square and theater district.
They will meet up with Officer Akins, extended family, and New York “Roanokers” for the walk and other events from Friday afternoon until they return on Sunday.
After the Jumbo video in Times Square, they will take shuttle buses to Great Hill in Central Park where Tyler will receive his award during opening ceremonies and make the speech he has written. The Buddy Walk itself (the 22nd annual) is one mile in Central Park and usually has about 1,000 participants. Tyler has a group of about 30 supporters walking with him.
In addition to the walk, there are many activities planned for the event including carnival games, concessions, crafts, and a dance party.
There is some time leftover for sightseeing on the trip and Tyler, a fan of “Blue Bloods,”hopes to eat at Wahlburgers.
Tyler’s speech, opens with “Don’t worry, I am going to keep this speech short and sweet like me,” and continues with, “I was very surprised and honored to find out I had won the award. I want to thank so many people for believing in me. My family, Travis Akins, all my friends at Katie’s Place, Kroger, and all the staff at St. Vincent’s.”
The NDSS Times Square Video which includes Tyler can be viewed online on the NDSS YouTube Channel.