Lights, camera, action! The profession of modeling may be hard for some, however, for Richard Jegen, Special Olympics Indiana athlete from Porter County, it comes very natural. For the past 10 years, Richard has used modeling as an outlet for fun and an opportunity to spread awareness for those with intellectual disabilities, in particular Down syndrome.

Richard, who recently turned 10 years old, is originally from Illinois. Richard and his family, now call the Hoosier state their home away from home. Since moving to Indiana three years ago, the Jegen family still continues to maintain some of their hometown ties – in particular, the National Association for Down Syndrome (NADS) Fashion in Chicago, Illinois. The fashion show, which took place last month, allowed Richard to strut his stuff, wave and dance down the 60 foot runway. The NADS fashion show boasts a staggering amount of national media coverage. What started off as an event that only had a few members in the audience of a small venue –now brings in more than 700 attendees from around the country. Hosted at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois, this event features individuals with Down syndrome of all ages, modeling fashions from local retailers. Richard’s family began participating in the event, from the request of a family friend who believed Richard’s vibrant personality would shine through and fill the room.

The NADS organization started off as an idea from a mother whose daughter was born with Down syndrome in 1960. In those days, the standard operating procedure in hospitals was for physicians to advise parents to institutionalize their newborn infants with intellectual disabilities. Parents, who did not follow this advice, took their babies home with zero support or services. It was no surprise that this mother had ignored her pediatrician’s advice and began to reach out to professionals and other parents of children with Down syndrome. This then manifested into an organization that would always recognize the great value of individuals with Down syndrome and of parents helping parents. It is this level of connection and love that is felt from many organizations across the country that supports the intellectual disability population.

Richard’s participation in Special Olympics Indiana for the past three years has brought forth this same level of connection and has transformed Richard into an even more confident athlete and individual. Lisa recalls many times when Richard came home from school and shared conversations about Special Olympics Indiana. “He feels like he is a part of the gang when he talks to his friends about his competitions and trainings,” said Lisa. “It’s a rewarding experience from a parent’s perspective, because Richard gets to be part of the conversation with other kids who do not have intellectual disabilities. Sports have the tendency to spark an incredible comradery and connection among people – which is why our entire family loves the Special Olympics movement.”  Though having an intellectual disability, like Down syndrome, is not a hard situation to adjust to for Richard’s friends, there is still a discomfort for people in today’s society.

It is the goal of Special Olympics Indiana and the entire movement to provide positive exposure and opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, so that Special Olympics athletes have the chance to become useful and productive citizens who are accepted and respected in their communities. This same goal is reflective in the love that Lisa and her husband have for Richard. “My husband and I have a mindset that is pretty simple. We want for Richard to one day live outside of our home, whether it’s in a group setting, roommate situation or maybe independently. I want Richard to have and hold down a job, have an income, give back to his community and become that productive member of our society –pulling his own weight in the world. I see that there is a place in this world for Richard, and want him to be part of that. No free rides for our son! We have the same expectation levels for him, as any other parent would their child.”

To continue to support more Special Olympics Indiana athletes across the state, think about participating in our largest fundraising event of the year, the Polar Plunge, where individuals take a daring dip in the chilly waters of Indiana. Lisa Jegen will be plunging for Special Olympics Indiana –all to benefit her son and the thousands of athletes the organization touches. She has already raised more than $3,800. For more information about the Polar Plunge visit: WWW.POLARPLUNGEIN.ORG.