"We want to be the voice of the angels; we want them to know that they are not forgotten," said President of Angels Unforgotten Africa, Bolanle Wendy Biakpara, when referring to African children with special needs.
Angels Unforgotten Africa celebrated its first gala for children with Down Syndrome on Saturday, 24 April at the Blue Star Brewing Company. The event featured keynote speaker Terri Mauldin, President of the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas.
According to Mauldin, Down Syndrome is the most commonly known genetic birth defect, with a rate of 1 in 162 live births in the United States alone. However, there is an even greater number of Down Syndrome pre-natal diagnoses.
"There's a very high termination rate, as well... It's anywhere between 70-90 percent of babies that are diagnosed pre-natally, are terminated, the pregnancy is terminated," Maudlin said. "So there's a lot of education that is still needed out there, especially for those that receive a diagnosis and don't know what to do."
The National Down Syndrome Society states that Down Syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21. Similar physical traits include small stature, upward eye-slant, and low muscle tone.
"[That extra chromosome] causes all kinds of health issues, physical features that people see. That's why our kids are so recognisable, because they have those common features," Maudlin said.
According to Mauldin, this doesn't mean all children with Down Syndrome have the same needs, despite our brain's automatic assumption that physical similarities equal emotional similarities.
"Individuals with Down Syndrome are not all the same. Individuals with Down Syndrome, they have different abilities, they have different talents, they have different interests... they're just like anybody else," Maudlin said.
Angels Unforgotten Africa started in 2004. The organisation shifted its focus to children with Down Syndrome in 2011 when Biakpara became aware of the prevalence of Down Syndrome in her hometown in Nigeria.
"While I was home, I was really touched by what I saw. I met a lot of parents with their kids who have special needs," Biakpara said.
Biakpara learned about the vast resources for children with special needs in the United States when she met Chairperson of Mo-Rainbow Foundation, Tola Makinde, for the first time.
"... I found a lot of elderly people begging for food on the street... and then I found that a lot of senior parents with kids with Down Syndrome, they suffer a lot..." Biakpara said. "Especially in Africa, special needs and women are seen as second-class citizens... We thought we will do something to empower these women so that life can be a lot easier for them, and they can still feed their families."
It was from that point on that Biakpara decided she wanted to bring the progressive education about Down Syndrome from the United States to Africa.
At the gala, Biakpara shared an anecdote about a woman with Down Syndrome living in Africa to demonstrate how lack of education can create fear and confusion.
"[This woman] has been kept in the house for over 30 years, because the parents are ashamed. They see it as a bad omen to have a child with Special Needs, Down Syndrome," Biakpara shared. "We want to educate people, to let them know that [children with Down Syndrome] are somebody. They need us. We need to treat them with love so that they have somebody. We need to give them hope. So we want to give advice to the hopeless."
Chairperson of Mo-Rainbow Foundation, Tola Makinde, gave a testimony on raising a daughter with Down Syndrome.
Mauldin explained that the Down Syndrome Association of South Texas is available for expecting parents who need the support a hospital cannot provide to them.
"We want to be the one organisation that most parents call. The doctor can provide the medical support and the medical information... and we can provide the emotional support, and the guidance and the resources..."