The Boardwalk Buddy Walk is a local chapter of the national Buddy Walk and was founded in 2006 by Dennis and Sharonlee Diehl. Sharonlee’s brother, David, has Down syndrome and she was considering relocating him to Rehoboth Beach. During this time, she and Dennis were inspired to encourage the acceptance of people with Down syndrome in the Rehoboth Beach community. The very first walk in 2006 had 350 participants.
Now, in their 11th year, Boardwalk Buddy Walk has been raising $65,000 a year. The organization’s principal mission, however, is not to raise money – it’s to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with Down syndrome and other cognitive disorders. The organization even supports a program at the Dewey Beach Lions Club where they teach cooking skills to people with Down syndrome. Dennis and Sharonlee, along with their daughter Liz Evans, are committed to educating our community on how to include people with Down syndrome and ensure that they are able to live fulfilling lives.
The most extraordinary fact about this organization is that it is run solely by volunteers. Michelle Hetherington, the now Executive Director of the organization, started volunteering with the organization back in 2010 when her nephew was born with Down syndrome. She started out by just stuffing envelopes. Even though she has worked her way up to the Executive Director spot, she still works a full-time job, as well. Michelle attributes much of the organization’s success to the generosity of our community.
With the help of the community and its members, Boardwalk Buddy Walk hosts several events throughout the year. Restaurants like The Cultured Pearl, Pig + Fish, Dos Locos, and Henlopen City Oyster House in Rehoboth Beach host a handful of events they call “Dining with Down syndrome” where they set aside nights for the organization and 10 to 15% of the night’s sales are donated to the cause. The organization also has a Buddy Bingo Night each spring and they team up with Best Buddies Delaware for an annual Dewey Beach 5K Buddy Run. In fact, The Dewey Beach 5K Buddy Run is coming up next weekend, August 7th, and we highly recommend making an appearance.
Finally, Boardwalk Buddy Walk’s pièce de résistance is their annual Boardwalk Buddy Walk on October 8th. The night before the event, October 7th, the organization hosts their huge Buddy Up Party – full of auctions, food, music, and all around good times. Then, the day of the event, everyone gathers at the boardwalk in Rehoboth to kick off the walk. Did we mention it’s free to register? That’s right. The organization is truly committed to increasing awareness and acceptance that they really just want everyone to attend the event. Donations are welcomed, though, if you feel so inclined.
The best part? Aside from making a donation to the National Down syndrome Society, all the donations collected stay right here in Delaware. Donations are made to Best Buddies Delaware, the local chapter of the Special Olympics, Chimes, and other local organizations that are dedicated to helping those with cognitive disorders.
So, back to that headline. This year, Boardwalk Buddy Walk was selected as the Buddy Walk of the Year. That’s huge since the Buddy Walk is an international organization hosting over 250 Buddy Walk events each year. The organization went to Washington in April to accept their award. Michelle attributes this win not to the amount of money the organization has raised, but to the amount of education and outreach they are able to provide in our community. Michelle told us that the National Down syndrome Society is impressed with the dedication of our community members and that is truly refreshing.
For people wanting to get involved, Michelle would like to encourage everyone to come out to their events and participate. The organization is also always accepting ideas for people wanting to host events to benefit the organization. Finally, they are always looking for volunteers to help put on their events and also help with more administrative tasks. Like we said, Michelle got her start in the organization just by stuffing envelopes!