Being Delaney Dunigan

The Kensington teen is busy with cheerleading, homework and hanging out with friends—things her parents weren't sure she'd ever do



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Delaney put her notes on the lectern and stood onstage last May to talk to students at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kensington about the word retarded. She didn’t use the word, but the kids knew what she meant. They had discussed it in class.

“There are many words people use to make people happy. But there are some words people use to hurt people…one of those words is the R-word,” she said. “I was bullied with words that hurt my feelings, so I can tell you: Words can hurt. Words have power, the power to hurt and the power to help. The R-word—no, the old R-word, sorry—hurts many people. And it has for many years. The new R-word, ‘respect,’ can help people be good to each other.” 

Delaney had been asked to speak at the school, where Patrick is now a fifth-grader, to help raise awareness about “R-word: Spread the Word to End the Word,” a campaign supported by Special Olympics, Best Buddies and other organizations that encourages people to sign a pledge to stop saying the R-Word. “We need [to] embrace everyone’s differences. We can all learn from each other and start always respecting others—the world will be a better place for everyone,” she continued. 

A few kids called Delaney names when she was younger; one boy pushed her from behind and kicked her feet as she was walking up the stairs in sixth grade because he didn’t think she was moving fast enough. “I’m not going there anymore—I’m not going up those stairs,” she’d say. As a mother, Emily can’t stand it when someone uses the R-word. She heard a comedian say it a few years ago when she was at a show with friends, and still regrets not telling the woman how offensive it was.

Sometimes Emily wonders if her daughter understands why she’s out giving speeches—and how much her words matter. “There are a lot of people with Down syndrome that have trouble speaking, that can’t express their feelings,” she’ll tell her. “You’re a voice for them.” Delaney does get nervous sometimes. After speaking to about a hundred high school volunteers about Best Buddies last fall, she buried her head in Emily’s chest and started to cry. “I did horrible,” she said. “No, you didn’t—you did so great,” Emily told her. Five minutes later, Delaney and her friends were doing the Whip/Nae Nae.  

In ways, she’s been performing her whole life. As a little girl, she’d sing in shows with her cousins at Capon Springs resort in West Virginia, where her family vacations in the summer. In 2014, she sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before one of Patrick’s meets at Connecticut Belair Swim & Tennis Club, the same pool where she used to finish a 50-meter freestyle and a 50-meter backstroke when she was on the swim team. For the past few years, she’s been a member of the Pegasus Ensemble at Imagination Stage; she recently played three different roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was Delaney’s touching rendition of “Hello” during a talent show at Walter Johnson last spring that led to her taking on a bigger role with Best Buddies. She was halfway through the ballad, belting it out like she’d seen Adele do, when she stopped to wave to her mom and dad. Then she kept going. “It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Annie Arditti, who oversees Best Buddies programs in 20 Montgomery County high schools and two middle schools. “By the end of it, you almost couldn’t get her off the microphone.”

As program manager for Best Buddies Maryland, Arditti looks for teens with a good stage presence who can share their stories as an ambassador for the organization. After meeting Delaney once, Arditti turned to her supervisor and said, “We need her.” 

***

Mark and Emily kept waiting for Patrick to hit that age when having a sister with Down syndrome might embarrass him. They’d planned on enrolling him in a support group called Sibshops, a program for brothers and sisters of kids with special needs, but once he was old enough to join, they felt he didn’t need it. At 6 or 7, he’d started to wonder why his older sister was doing math homework he’d already done. He asked his dad if doctors could fix Delaney—if they could give her an operation so she wouldn’t have Down syndrome—but it never seemed to bother him that she was different than the kids he knew. “I was like, ‘no, Patrick, this is just the way she’s gonna be.’ And he was like, ‘OK,’ and that was kind of it,” Mark says. “He’s always just been great with her.” 

Even though they’re seven years apart, the two hang out together and watch movies, jump on the trampoline, and try to get Alexa, their voice-controlled Amazon speaker, to tell jokes. “He laughs, he tickles me, I tickle him back. He’s a cute little brother,” Delaney says, “but he’s 11 now and he’s growing up. I call him Buzz. That’s his nickname, Buzz Lightyear.”  

Emily told Patrick years ago that it’s OK to get upset if Delaney does something that bothers him and that he doesn’t have to let her off the hook. He doesn’t like it when she talks over him. She gets annoyed if he’s using the downstairs TV when she wants it. “Patrick, Mommy doesn’t want you on the Xbox, it’s time for homework, sweetie,” she’ll tell him. 

“That’s when the fireworks [go] off,” Delaney says. 

When Patrick had to write a rap song for an English assignment in January, he asked his teacher if Delaney could come in and perform it with him. “She’s hilarious,” he says of his sister, “her attitude and sassiness.” They practiced at home, and the next morning Delaney stood in front of a room full of fifth-graders, posing as her brother’s backup singer. She knows many of the kids in Patrick’s class from basketball and lacrosse games. “Bye, love you guys,” she said as she left.

“I would say this,” Delaney says. “Those are Patrick’s friends—but when I see them, they’re my boys.”

Emily’s seen the community embrace her daughter over the past few years, she says. Patrick’s friends don’t have to respond to Delaney’s messages on Snapchat, but they do. Her cheerleading coaches don’t have to come to her birthday parties, but they do. Emily used to know every person her daughter spent time with, but it’s not like that anymore. At a school football game last fall, there were kids saying hello to Delaney that Emily had never seen before. This is real life, she thought. This is how it’s supposed to be. 

***

Delaney’s parents have told her that if she doesn’t want to go to college, she’ll have to get a job. “A lot of women around here don’t work,” she  said to Mark. “Why do I have to?”

“If you marry someone who makes good money, you can stay home,” he said.  

“Well OK then,” she replied.

Delaney often reminds people that she’s 18 now—“I’m an adult,” she’ll say—but she doesn’t talk much about life after high school. She’s comfortable where she is. She has her class schedule laminated on her binder, right above her Best Buddies sticker, and she knows where she has to be and when. Four days a week she leaves Walter Johnson after computer class and takes a school bus to her job at the Bethesda Health and Rehabilitation Center, where she walks the hallways greeting and talking to residents. Then she returns to school for English and PE. On Fridays, she and her classmates go out in the community: Red Wiggler Community Farm, Great Falls, Union Station. Every trip has a purpose—at Wegmans in Germantown, Delaney might focus on using a grocery list and figuring out how much money she’ll need at the register. 

“Her independence and her maturity, responsibility have grown,” says Emilia O’Connor, an LFI teacher and Best Buddies co-sponsor who’s worked with Delaney since she was a freshman and cites her biggest strength as her social skills. “She used to be very reliant on other people to kind of help her through a process. Now, once she kind of knows the process, like, ‘oh, this is my list and I need to go look for these items,’ she’ll take charge of that.”

Some of O’Connor’s former students at Walter Johnson have gone on to the Graduate Transition Program at Montgomery College, a two-year certificate program designed to offer a college experience for adults with special needs, or the college’s Challenge Program, which provides unique enrichment courses—from “The Science of Cooking” to “How the U.S. Government Works”—to help adults with disabilities function more independently. George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has a four-year post-secondary program called Mason LIFE, which includes residential housing for students with disabilities. Delaney’s friend Theresa, a junior at The Academy of the Holy Cross, recently told her that she’s planning to go away to college and live on campus. “I think she’s having these conversations with Theresa, and Theresa’s helping her see that she can do it,” Emily says. 

Sometimes Mark thinks Delaney really could get married one day; other times he can’t imagine her anywhere but home. “I don’t know if I want her with Emily and I, just the three of us, or I really want her to try to venture out,” he says. “I worry about that—I don’t know yet.” 

For now, Delaney’s focused on more pressing issues. Where she’s going for dinner after cheerleading practice. Justin Bieber’s latest haircut. The homework she forgot to do. “Oh crap,” she says when she realizes it. 

Senior Editor Cindy Rich can be reached at cindy.rich@bethesdamagazine.com.

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