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Super Star - Local Girl Selected For Buddy Walk Video
Reading, writing and arithmetic may not come quite as easily to Sophie Johnson as they do to her first grade classmates at Van Allen Elementary School but the blond-haired girl with the quick smile and dancing eyes just works that much harder to keep up.

Born with Down syndrome, Sophie has become a sort of 'poster child' for the condition, her photo displayed this past weekend at the kickoff event for Down Syndrome Awareness Month at Times Square in New York City. It marked the second consecutive year that Sophie's photo was one of those chosen for the video, selected from among thousands submitted from all over the world.

"Sophie is such a bright light in our lives and we feel extremely blessed to have her," said her mom, Alicia Johnson.

Pointing to her daughter's involvement in multiple 'normal' activities - from dance to Girl Scouts - Johnson said she is "a happy, thriving little girl" and continues to do well in school and socially, with a number of friends.

"We feel like she can really provide inspiration and hope to lots of families out there" raising a Down syndrome child, added Johnson.

Since her case is mild, dad Anthony and mom Alicia made the decision to keep Sophie in a traditional school setting, starting her in kindergarten last year at Van Allen.

"At the end of the year, she was scoring proficient and advanced in all areas," her mom said of standard testing. "We are taking one year at a time, at this point she hasn't qualified for resource (help) and she doesn't need a one-on-one aide."

Sophie is fitting in well with her classmates and teacher Debbie Shaw said she brings a lot to the classroom.

"It's nice that the other kids get a chance to see somebody with special needs and how happy and involved she is," Shaw explained of the lessons that Sophie provides to her classmates just by her presence at school. "They all love her."

Teacher and parent agreed that it is a 'team effort' to keep Sophie up to date with school standards. Alicia Johnson is also an educator and takes extra time at home to work with Sophie so she can stay current with all her schoolwork. Sophie also has a big brother Ethan, 9, at Van Allen and a younger brother Lucas, 4, in preschool.

There's also time on the playground, school assemblies, after school activities like dance and just spending time with friends to keep the 7-year-old busy.

This year in New York City, it was the 17th annual Buddy Walk to raise awareness about and acceptance of people with Down syndrome. More than 2,000 people were expected for the walk and video viewing, Alicia and Sophie among them.

Tours of the Statue of Liberty, a Broadway show and more were also on the itinerary.

For young Sophie, though, the chance to ride on an airplane and visit a big city, staying in a hotel, also had another lure.

"Sleeping in," she said happily, smiling at the thought of a few extra hours of sleep once she hit the Big Apple.

The photo picked of Sophie this year for the video was a picture with her close friends Mallory Berhorst, Emma Guevara and Gracie Ferreira, with all four girls attending Van Allen and nearly inseparable.

Also accompanying Alicia and Sophie to New York City were Gracie and her mom Amanda Ferreira and grandpa Dale Clayton, and Mallory and her mom Christine Berhorst.

The Buddy Walk in New York City served as the start of similar events across the country, with the local Buddy Walk scheduled next month.

The Brighterside of Down Syndrome Buddy Walk will be on Saturday, Oct. 8 at Micke Grove Regional Park in Lodi.

Led by individuals with Down syndrome and their "buddies," the one-mile walk is designed to promote understanding and acceptance of humanity's most common genetic disorder. The event is the only local walk covering San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties and other communities. Registration is $20 per person and includes lunch and a t-shirt. For more information, call (209) 598-3441.

Now that she is back from her whirlwind trip to New York City and settling back in to her routine, Johnson said Sophie continues to greet each day with a smile.

"She loves school, she just loves doing her homework," Johnson said.

And while admitting that the family was initially "shocked" to learn Sophie had Down syndrome, Johnson said they just went on from there.

"We just said we would do everything we could to keep things as normal as possible," Johnson explained. "We have very high expectations for her, she goes to play group and Sunday School, she is involved in music and dance ...Van Allen has also been an amazing place for her, there is so much support here, Mr. Ferreira is an awesome principal and there are great teachers.

"We're very honored to be part of the Buddy Walk - it's a way to promote acceptance and inclusion, we have a great opportunity to do that."