Lehighton football team honors twins with Down syndrome
Lehighton football captains, from left, Lucas Sangiuliano, Ben Schatz, Devin Greene and Brett Gasker are joined by honorary captains Shane and Wyatt Waksmunski, midfield as referee Tom Kichline performs the coin toss before Friday evening’s game against Tamaqua. Athletic director Kyle Spotts is in the background. RICH SMITH/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
Their father will tell you that his 9-year old twin sons are just regular kids. They have feelings like any one else. They like to play with their friends and they love to give hugs. They do well in school, too, but they work a bit slower than other students and sometimes they feel overwhelmed with what’s expected of them.
Eric and Mary Waksmunski are the parents of Shane and Wyatt, who have Down syndrome. Together, they are running a campaign to publicize the disorder during October, which is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.
Down syndrome, named for British doctor John Langdon Down who first described the condition in the late 1800s, is a genetic chromosome disorder which affects physical growth and can cause mild to moderate intellectual disability and is identifiable by specific facial feature characteristics.
Getting out the message
Mary and Eric, who live in Mahoning Township, were invited with Shane and Wyatt, along with their 12-year-old son, Jesse, to the Lehighton football game on Friday night by head coach, Tom McCarroll. The twins and their father spent time with the team and were present on the field during pregame preparation. Shane and Wyatt were named honorary co-captains of the game and conducted a ceremonial coin toss at midfield before the Indians played Tamaqua.
“When Coach McCarroll heard that we were traveling to each of the college football teams in the Patriot League for Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we met with him at his team’s practice and he set it up where we could meet with his coaches and his players and do the coin toss,” said Waksmunski.
“They live right here in our community,” said McCarroll, whose son is a classmate of the twin boys. “I’ve seen what Eric puts on social media sites about Down syndrome and I found out he and his family are traveling to visit all the Patriot League college teams. I’m from Colgate, (a league team) so that too helped bring his message to my attention.”
“Shane and Wyatt really love sports, so visiting all the football teams is a big thrill for them,” said Waksmunski. “They were also named co-captains for a game at Colgate, and now being around the Lehighton team was very exciting. It was wonderful. We had a group picture with the officials and team captains on the field. The entire experience will help us get out our message.”
State Rep. Doyle Heffley read a resolution before the game acknowledging the twins and proclaiming October as Down Syndrome Awareness Month. He said that children with the disorder can grow into productive adults in our communities, attaining self- sustaining employment and getting married.
“It is both a blessing and a challenge to live with and raise children with Down syndrome,” said Heffley.
Battles after birth
Shane and Wyatt, like many others who are born with Down syndrome, had serious health issues during their first two years of life.
“They spent over 200 days at the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital in Danville,” said Waksmunski. “They’ve had more than 10 surgeries there.”
Along with gastrointestinal problems, Wyatt was born with only half a diaphragm, the muscle between the abdomen and the chest that pulls air into the lungs. Doctors inserted an artificial other half to help facilitate Wyatt’s breathing.
Shane has juvenile arthritis, a chronic inflammation of the tissues in the joints of his legs and arms.
“Many children with Down syndrome have serious heart issues, too,” said Waksmunski, “but we are very fortunate that Shane and Wyatt have no problems there.”
Getting us together
Waksmunski believes that the public perception of Down syndrome can be improved by having more interaction with those who might be isolated from the community because of the stigma surrounding the disorder.
“Fifty years ago, kids with Down’s were called retards,” he said, “and of course that’s not acceptable today. The world can be cruel to everyone, so we’re working to improve the process of awareness to allow people to think differently.”
He added that there are parents of children with Down syndrome who are embarrassed to take them out into the public.
“We can’t change everyone’s mind, but we are trying to show the public that we can be the best we can be.”
This month the Waksmunskis have kicked off a campaign on behalf of Shane and Wyatt and for children with Down syndrome all across America.
Their hope is that the public will catch the ball for these children and become team players to help them acclimate into our schools and inside our communities.