Story and photos by James Wooldridge
Jack Anderson wasn’t going to let Dan Walker win. No way. Not a chance.
The two college students swung the Wii remotes up and down in front of the flatscreen in the Anderson family’s dimly-lit basement. The score was close. Then with a sweep of the remote, Jack’s player drained the shot with one quick swoosh and the basketball game was over.
“Mrs. Anderson!” Dan yelled from the basement. “Jack’s being mean.”
But Jack, age 22, had a different take.
“A lot of people give Dan whatever he wants,” just because he has Down syndrome, Jack said.
Down syndrome is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability and certain facial characteristics. 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome in the United States each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The fierce competitors have been best friends through elementary school, middle school, high school and now college. It was an instant friendship when they met in kindergarten.
“I didn’t really realize Dan had Down syndrome when he was that little,” Anderson said. “I just knew Dan was Dan.”
The two lifelong friends now go to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where Dan is in Propel, a program for students with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Jack is studying sociology. He wants to help people with disabilities. People like Dan. He also works at the Down Syndrome Guild, and he mentors four other students in the Propel Program. He still sees Dan almost every day.
But it’s not like it used to be when they were growing up, playing air hockey in Dan’s basement and going to school together every day. Jack would translate for Dan when the teacher couldn’t understand him.
Now they’re in different classes. Dan lives in a dorm with a roommate, while Jack lives with his parents eight miles away.
But Dan still loves hanging out with Jack. His friend doesn’t give him those weird looks that make him feel self conscious. He doesn’t have to repeat his words three times before Jack understands. Jack gets him.
And when he’s with Jack, he doesn’t have to sit in his dorm room alone, watching DVDs.
For years Jack has been driving Dan to work at McGonigle’s Market, a grocery store in Kansas City. Jack used to help Dan with his duties, but now he just drops him off.
Jack doesn’t worry about Dan’s future. After college, he’ll find a job and live independently. He has his parents and a sister, age 25, who also has Down Syndrome, to look up to.
But one day soon, Jack won’t be around. Twice, he spent six weeks caring for kids with disabilities in Cambodia, where genetic conditions like Down Syndrome aren’t widely understood. He is thinking about moving there after college.
While he’s caring for Cambodian children half a world away, he thinks about his best friend back home.
“Would I do this for Dan?” he asks himself. Yes, he said. “I would do anything for Dan.”