Wanna see happy? It's including kids of all abilities in sports
Trace Dandrea reaches across the sofa to good-naturedly rib his 14-year-old son, Anthony, who breaks into his trademark grin — the one that lights up his whole face — and ribs him right back.
Trace says: “My … whole story is right here (in Anthony). The blessing — he has changed our lives.”
He launches into a story: When Anthony competed in his first youth triathlon, he got a third-place medal in his age-group — but his friend did not. So the first thing Anthony did when he got home was to make another award.
“He got a medal, but what is he thinking of? His friend who didn’t get a medal. You know what? In this world, we get our signals crossed. …
“These kids don’t get their signals crossed. … They don’t filter. They’re just love.
“To me, that is unbelievable. He’s a gift. He’s a gift to us.”
• • •
When Trace and his wife, Jennifer, were still excited about their second pregnancy, lab work noted that they were high risk for having a child with Down syndrome. The doctor indicated that there were options.
“We said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you’re getting at, but if God gives us this child, that’s what we’re taking.’”
Anthony’s older sister had the same risk.
Jennifer: “Katie came out OK and Anthony came out Anthony.”
Trace: “(After he was born) we said we’re going to take this kid to the max. We’re going to ignore the books. Then it was (we’re going to) ignore online, because everything was about what he was not going to do — about what he can’t do.”
Trace is a triathlon and marathon competitor.
“That’s where Ironman is a big tie: ‘Believe what’s possible.’ Anything is possible.”
Trace brings to mind amputees doing the Ironman and people in wheelchairs. He recalls a video that went viral about a kid with cerebral palsy in a kids triathlon, using a walker during the run. One hundred yards from the finish line, he set the walker aside and started running — and fell. He picked himself up and fell again. And again.
“(People with disabilities) could be sitting by, saying ‘Woe is me.’ No, they found a way to get back in the game. … People complain about their lives; these guys are finding out how to get it done.
“It’s awesome. (Anthony) teaches us every day. He’s pretty special. I wish I knew then what I know now.”
• • •
Ten years ago, when Trace was 45 years old, he had a wake-up call. At this rate, said his doctor, you’re not going to live to see your grandchildren. His cholesterol, his hereditary propensity for diabetes, his weight — all going in the wrong direction.
“I needed to do something extreme.”
Coincidentally, that was the year the Ironman announced it was coming to Boise, speaking of extreme. Trace didn’t even know if he could do a race that long, but he started to train. And then he was hooked. He started running marathons, too. His cholesterol went down and his sugar level, too, although that took several years to stabilize. His weight is just right.
And it was all good — except. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t quite enough.
“If you’re going to go out (and compete), what are you going to do — win a race? No, you’re not going to win a race. So why not get your motivation by helping others?”
Four years ago, Trace was poking around on the Internet, looking for triathlons. The search engines noted that he had also been searching for information about Down syndrome. His computer suggested a link and Trace found himself reading about a group called Racing for Orphans with Down Syndrome — RODS.
That was it.
“I’m not racing for myself. I’m racing for a cause greater than myself: for orphans to get adopted.”
• • •
When Anthony was 3 years old, he learned to swim. By 7 years old, he was on the swim team, just like his older sister.
“Our whole goal is inclusion. … (Although) we never looked at it as inclusion; we just looked at it as raising Anthony. …
“The more he’s included in sports, the more he develops physically. Socially, that’s real critical. And intellectually. That’s the three key things that sports delivers.
“He builds confidence with his peers, and his peers learn about special needs so they’re not afraid of it. The more he’s exposed, it’s contagious — they love helping; he feels a part and included. …
“Kids thrive. Whether it’s the child with the need, or the child without. Everyone does; everyone learns from it.”
And Anthony loved sports. If it had a ball, he was in. Basketball, flag football; track, swimming. Surgery on his knee slowed his running career, so Anthony learned to ride a bike — and triathlons got added to his sports.
“You know what — when people meet Anthony, they start thinking differently about special needs. They start thinking differently about what’s possible. We involve him in everything to show what’s possible.”
• • •
The purpose of RODS is to help orphans who have Down syndrome get adopted. Each year, RODS runners and racers (about 200 of them, ranging from professionals to the occasional 5K-er) raise about half the cost of an adoption, $15,000, to make it easier for a family who wants to adopt. So far, RODS has helped get 21 orphans with Down syndrome into “forever families.”
“We’re going to change the world, one child (at a time). We don’t stop till there’s no more orphans.”
One day, Trace learned about a little girl in Utah who made and sold jam with her mother and raised about $1,500 for the current orphan. The founder of RODS, a then-Meridian man named Brady Murray, asked Trace to develop a RODS Jr. program for kids.
“First (the idea) was raising money for orphans. Then all of a sudden it turned into — it’s not all about kids raising money for orphans, it’s about inclusion. Because these kids that we’re getting adopted, what are we doing when the kids get older?
“We have to be an advocate for the kids that as they get older that they’re being included.”
RODS Jr. became a forum for including kids of all abilities in sports — and the phrase “include-ability” was born.
RODS Jr. has been a sponsor of two youth triathlons, which specifically support athletes with disabilities, and has worked with various teams in Boise to partner with special-needs students. At Eagle High School, for instance, the girls soccer team makes the special ed students VIP members, complete with t-shirts, and hosts an event to give each of them a shot at the goal. It’s part fundraiser — and total inclusion. The team also helps challenged athletes at the triathlons.
Later, when the senior Eagle soccer girls were being honored, Trace noted that several of them were going to college planning to be special education teachers.
“When kids are included, lives change. Real simply. …
“When Anthony was born, there would be kids who would gravitate toward him. … These gals and these guys would have this big heart and they’d want to hang out with Anthony. They’d want to include him. Not all kids were like that. …
“It became obvious how important this was as a trait. These are the kids who grow up to be compassionate and do great things to help others. …”
• • •
Trace is a senior director for McCain Foods. When Katie and Anthony were born, the family made a decision to remain in Boise and for Trace to bypass an upwardly mobile career path to stay here.
“(I was a) very competitive, driven business guy, in business for 30 years. When you get a child with special needs, then all of a sudden …
“What I’m learning today is life balance. Life is much better when it’s balanced. That’s pretty important. …
“We have so much fun. We are such a much better family.”
And he credits Anthony. That’s one of the main reasons Trace is so ardent about his work with RODS and RODS Jr.
“You see so many amazing stories of kids who are achieving great things with Down syndrome. That’s hope. If it’s true that (many of these babies) are aborted, will parents think differently when they’re diagnosed that their child will have Down syndrome? Will there be more families who will choose to have that child than not?
“There are two things you can do. One, you can accept it. Or two, you can put the child up for adoption. We try and prove both those.
“We’re showing what’s possible. These kids are productive; they fill our life — more than we can ever imagine — with love.
“Or we’re showing how these kids, who are abandoned in these countries, are having amazing lives with families in the U.S.
“It all ties together. I wouldn’t be doing this if Anthony hadn’t come along and shown us how amazing (a special needs kid) changes your life to the better.”
Principles of RODS Jr.
Inclusion: How do you include those who may be different?
Integrity: How do you help others?
Leadership: Do you have the courage to do what’s right or stand up for those who need it?
Compassion: That’s all about loving unconditionally and helping others.
Empathy: Accept and respect differences.
Believing: That’s the key one because that’s about believing anything’s possible.
The power of one: Change starts with you.
Donate to a RODS orphan
Reece’s Rainbow lists children with Down syndrome and other special needs available for adoption. Under each child’s name, there is an amount donated toward adoption. RODS picks one orphan and raises $15,000. “We don’t want to raise 100 percent of the adoption,” says Trace Dandrea. “(The adoptive family) has got to be in.”
Racers wear RODS shirts, talk about the program, do social media awareness and raise money. “We’re trying to grow with the right people,” says Trace. “The people who want to go compete for a cause greater than themselves.” Ironman Canada 2016 did a feature on Trace and Anthony.
Be a RODS runners at Onward Shay! Boise Marathon
• Onward Shay! will donate $25 per entry to RODS and you get 40 percent off your entry, as RODS Jr. and TriTown team up to save an orphan. Register for the full or half-marathon or as a relay team of five, up to and including race day, Oct. 30. For promotion code, email firstname.lastname@example.org. OnwardShay.com.
• 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 29: Kristen’s Run Toto, Run! Kid’s race, with costumes, at Boise High School track. $10. Free entry for kids with disabilities. For promotion code, mail email@example.com.
• Watch and cheer for the RODS relay team led by celebrity Dick Andersen. The team is contributing $1,200 to the current RODS orphan. Andersen is an executive of the Sun Valley Corporation, a long-time competitive runner and cyclist, and husband to Gabrielle Andersen, who will be remembered for determinedly staggering to the finish in the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984.