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We can be great friends, even with differences 

Godfrey-Lee — Sonia Gemmen saw her mom, Lisa Gemmen, walk into her classroom on March 21 and her smile grew wider.

“Mommy!” she exclaimed, and received a big hug.

Lisa Gemmen visited her daughter, a student in Laura Pebley’s fourth-grade class at Godfrey Elementary in honor of World Down Syndrome Day. She brought her friend Vickie Koshans, who also has a daughter with Down syndrome, to speak with Sonia’s class about inclusion, acceptance and showing kindness. 

It was a school-wide opportunity to learn about and celebrate World Down Syndrome Day. Other teachers signed up to have Godfrey special education teacher Sara Casey read to their classes books about Down syndrome provided by the Gemmen family. 

Fourth-grader Sonia Gemmen celebrates World Down Syndrome Day with her class at Godfrey Elementary

Koshans showed a video to Pebley’s class that featured Special Olympian Devon Adelman, who talked about her life with Down syndrome. 

“Does anyone know anyone with Down syndrome?” Koshans asked after the video.

And several students called out, “Sonia!”

Ja’Morae Grover also shared with his classmates that his brother has Down syndrome, and his family calls it his “super power.”

“He’s really good at swimming, but not so great at talking,” Grover said.

Koshans explained to the class that there are some things people with Down syndrome can’t do, but most things they are able to do, like everyone else. 

“We’re all really good at some things and we’re all really bad at some things and that’s OK,” fourth-grader David Rameriz said. “We can get better, or it’s OK that we’re not good at everything.”

“Sonia is really good at dancing,” Gemmen shared.

From left, fourth-graders Bianca Perez, Mia Maldonado, Ashly Leon Garcia and Dayana Lopez Solis swapped their socks until they all got the ones they wanted

Mismatched Socks

The Gemmen family adopted Sonia from Haiti when she was 4. Despite her extra chromosome, Gemmen says Sonia enjoys doing all kinds of activities with her family. 

“She loves roller coasters, the crazy, wild one,” Gemmen told them. “She’s a goofball and such a happy kid.”

Koshan also asked students if they noticed anyone wearing anything different that day.

In honor of the day’s theme, “Rock Your Socks,” held since 2013, Gemmen, Koshans, Casey and Sonia all wore colorful patterned socks. Koshans brought pairs of mismatched socks for everyone in Sonia’s class with partial help from Pal Socks, billed on their website as “perfect mismatches that come paired as two unique, colorful characters that are friends despite their differences.”

According to the Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, “people with Down syndrome are born with three copies – instead of the more common two – of their 21st chromosome — a piece of your genetic makeup that kind of looks like a sock.” That is why the date March 21, or 3-21, is symbolic.

Organizers say the theme of wearing unique socks helps initiate conversations and raise awareness about Down syndrome. It’s “all about valuing and celebrating each other’s differences and recognizing we have many things in common, too,” Gemmen said.

The socks are “a visual reminder of accepting each other despite our differences,” Koshans said. 

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter, covering Caledonia, Kenowa Hills, Godfrey-Lee, Grand Rapids and is a roving reporter for GRCC, Wyoming, Kentwood and Byron Center. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News - covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry.  Following a stint as a copywriter for a Grand Rapids area PR firm, she transitioned from communications to freelance writing and reporting for SNN.  Read Alexis' full bio

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