When Concord's Tamara Ingold was asked to decorate a Christmas tree for the Down Syndrome Association of Charlotte, she quickly got on board, then recruited her 3-year-old son, Lee, to help.
The DSAC's tree is among 40-plus trees decorated by local businesses and nonprofits for the Festival of Trees, part of Charlotte Motor Speedway's Carolina Christmas. The trees, with sponsors from Coca-Cola to the Ryan Newman Foundation, will be on display through December.
Ingold, a board member of DSAC, said she hopes the tree will help bring awareness to the group while dispelling myths surrounding the genetic condition.
"This has been an amazing opportunity to let people know our organization is here to help," Ingold said. "My hope would be that if there is a family who feels the way I did three years ago, they will attend Carolina Christmas, see the tree and know there is an amazing resource here for them."
Ingold and her husband, Scott, both were 40 when they found out they were going to have a baby. Doctors told them there was a 1-in-6 chance Lee would be born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition in which a person has 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46.
"We knew there was a chance just based on our age when we got pregnant, but it didn't matter," said Ingold. "This is what God gave us, so this was all that we needed."
The DSAC's north subgroup caters to Cabarrus residents and others north of Charlotte. Meetings range from play dates to moms' nights and other social events. Scott serves as program director for the DSAC DADS group, which meets the fourth Tuesday of every month.
The DSAC, formed in 1986, estimates there are more than 400,000 people with Down syndrome in the U.S. and more than 1,000 throughout the Charlotte area. About two dozen Cabarrus County families are involved with DSAC.
The National Down Syndrome Congress slogan, and the theme for the DSAC's tree, is "More alike than different."
Glittery blue ribbons accented by gold stars bearing myth-busting factoids decorate the tree, along with framed pictures of children with Down syndrome doing everyday things: running on a beach, eating a cookie, celebrating a birthday, smiling, laughing.
"It's just a good platform, and it's a really great way to showcase things all little kids do," said Ingold. "They have likes and dislikes, ideas and dreams about the future, and all the same feelings and emotions that anyone else possesses."
Ingold, who left her career as a graphic designer to care for her son full-time, said she got involved with the DSAC because she felt completely lost.
"I was really afraid of the unknown," she said. "Every website I visited seemed filled with terrifying information about raising a child with Down syndrome: infantile spasms, respiratory issues, heart defects, leukemia - the list was endless."
She eventually searched online for "Down syndrome" and "Charlotte," hoping to uncover something positive.
"I found the DSAC, and their new parent contact called me immediately and assured me that the DSAC members were here for us in any way that they could be," Ingold said. "That conversation helped ease my mind. I knew there was someone I could lean on and they pointed me in all the right directions."
Developmental delays are common for children with Down syndrome, so the Ingolds have adopted the mantra, "It will take some time, but he'll get there."
It often takes children with the disorder longer to develop fine motor skills. They also don't walk as early as peers, and mastering speech is hurdle. "But with early intervention, a little patience and lots of practice, the gap between typical and special-needs children will narrow," said Ingold.
The DSAC meets several times a year and cover topics from potty training and cognitive research to music therapy and group sports. The Charlotte organization also has hosted several world conferences.
"It feels like a private club that is genuine and supportive," said Ingold. "It's hard to believe I would have never had the opportunity to meet some of my dearest friends if not for Lee."