Sophomore Shreya Poladia, and juniors Mary Bahrami, Brooke Boykin, and Kaitlyn Boykin read Kenny Kicks Back to the second grade class at River Ridge Elementary on Jan. 17.
Sophomore Shreya Poladia, and juniors Mary Bahrami, Brooke Boykin, and Kaitlyn Boykin read “Kenny Kicks Back” to the second grade class at River Ridge Elementary on Jan. 17.
Submitted Photograph

Kenny Kicks Back: Students spread awareness on Down Syndrome

He sat at a table in the back of the cafeteria, trying to blend in with the crowd. Putting his tray down, he sighed, preparing for another lunchtime alone. He heard someone clear their throat and looked up. 

“May I sit here?” one of his classmates asked. 

He nodded enthusiastically, trying to hide his grin. It was Jan. 17, and the story “Kenny Kicks Back: A Story about Down Syndrome and Embracing Differences” was starting to make a difference at River Ridge Elementary.

While brainstorming project ideas for their Destination Imagination service challenge, sophomore Shreya Poladia, and juniors Mary Bahrami, Brooke Boykin, and Kaitlyn Boykin stumbled upon something surprising.

We found that the majority of families of children with Down Syndrome in Texas had negative experiences with inclusion in the public school system,” Boykin said. “We also found out that Texas ranks 49th in access to services for people with disabilities and has, by far, the longest waiting list for Home and Community-Based Services.” 

Down Syndrome or Trisomy 21 is a condition where a person has an extra 21st chromosome. This chromosomal difference leads to physical, mental, and developmental differences.

“People with Down Syndrome [have] a flat facial profile, almond-shaped eyes, and a shorter stature,” Boykin said. “Despite their differences, people with Down Syndrome lead normal lives and can grow up to go to college, get married, work, and live a long, happy life!”

The inspiration for the story was more than a statistic. For Poladia, it came from a place close to heart. Her brother, Raj, has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and Poladia was often a witness to the challenges he faced.

“Despite my brother’s exceptional efforts, he encounters more judgment than the average student,” Poladia said.Witnessing his journey and the challenges he faces every day motivated us to raise awareness about Down Syndrome and promote inclusivity. It is not just a project. It is a heartfelt commitment to advocating for those who, like my brother, often find themselves on the fringes of societal understanding.”

The team made the book as a testament to the resilience of the countless individuals facing challenges similar to those Poladia has seen her brother face. However, the goal was more than acknowledgement.

“[We wanted] to act as a positive catalyst for education, combat bullying, dispel myths, and promote meaningful inclusion towards individuals with disabilities,” Poladia said. “The challenge was to strike a delicate balance between conveying important lessons about inclusivity and Down Syndrome while ensuring the content remained age-appropriate and engaging.”

One of the major obstacles for the team was ensuring that the book remained informative while catering to the target audience in a manner that was not overwhelming. Coordinating through busy AP-packed schedules and extracurriculars, the team crafted “Kenny Kicks Back.”

“It is a story about a boy named Kenny, who has Down Syndrome,” Boykin said. “When Kenny decides to join his local soccer team, he finds that he is not quite as fast or strong as the rest of his peers, and his teammates seem to treat him differently. Despite the challenges that he faces, Kenny overcomes these obstacles through hard work and practice. By the end of the book, Kenny proves to himself and his teammates that regardless of his differences, he is just as capable of doing anything they can do.”

The story was designed to be more than a narration of a personal journey. The nuances in the plot were purposeful: they reflect what many people with Down Syndrome go through.

“It sheds light on the initial reluctance of his peers to include him in the soccer team, showcasing the challenges of fostering inclusivity,” Poladia said. “The story delicately navigates the dynamics of acceptance, portraying how preconceived notions and uncertainties can be replaced with understanding and camaraderie.”

Sophomore Shreya Poladia, and juniors Mary Bahrami, Brooke Boykin, and Kaitlyn Boykin participate in the Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas’s Buddy Walk on Oct. 1. (Submitted Photograph)

Other than the narrative, the book contains information about Down Syndrome. This addition was intended to make the book an educational tool: something that could introduce a topic unfamiliar to young readers and foster empathy.

“[Researching for the book] emphasized to us how much of a need this community has, which inspired us to take our project to the next level,” Boykin said.

In addition to donating the profits, the contributors participated in the Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas (an organization that provides education, support, and resources to individuals with Down syndrome and their families) Buddy Walk event on Oct. 1, where they raised $672. They also presented the book to the second-grade class at River Ridge Elementary on Jan. 17.

“Seeing the eager faces of the children and feeling their curiosity created a sense of responsibility,” Poladia said. “We didn’t just want to read a story; we wanted to initiate a conversation about Down Syndrome, break down misconceptions, and encourage a culture of acceptance.”

Poladia was thrilled by the genuine interest that was expressed in response to the story. Boykin echoed the sentiment. To her, the response received was greater than expected. 

Sophomore Shreya Poladia, and juniors Mary Bahrami, Brooke Boykin, and Kaitlyn Boykin visit River Ridge Elementary for the reading of “Kenny Kicks Back” on Jan. 17.

They asked a lot of questions, and I think they learned a lot from our presentation,” Boykin said. “We even got a note from one of the teachers that said that after our presentation, one of her students sat next to a child (who had differences, just like Kenny) in the cafeteria because he was sitting by himself, which was not something [she] had previously done.”

The single act of inclusion was a testament to the possibility of impact for the team. To know that the boy may have been someone else’s brother, and because of their book, his life may be even the tiniest bit easier, moved Poladia.

“It was a profound feeling, knowing that our creation was fostering positive change in real-time,” Poladia said. “[It] is not just a story; it is a manifestation of empathy, a bridge to understanding, and a call to action. At its core, the story is a celebration of diversity and the willpower that resides within every child.”

So far, over 38 copies of “Kenny Kicks Back: A Story about Down Syndrome and Embracing Differences” have been sold through Amazon and a few copies were donated to local libraries. All profits made from book sales go to the Down Syndrome Association of Central Texas.

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About the Contributor
Seiya Mutreja, Editor
Seiya Mutreja is a senior, and is overjoyed to be the Data and Graphics editor on the editorial board this year. This is her third year in the Vandegrift Voice. Apart from the Voice, she is part of NEHS, NHS, SNHS, Mu Alpha Theta, FFA, FCCLA, and the Student Council. Outside of school, she loves to bake, play piano and guitar, and read.

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