Eagle Scout with Down syndrome soars

12/03/2011 5:00 AM

12/03/2011 8:13 AM

When Daniel Camacho celebrates becoming an Eagle Scout, he will be among just 5 percent of Boy Scouts who can make that claim.

But he is part of an even more elite group because he achieved that rank with an extra chromosome, which is one way of saying he was born with Down syndrome.

The 20-year-old Lenexa man has lived as full a life as anybody growing up in the suburbs. Just looking at his schedule is exhausting: soccer, theater, basketball, dance, wrestling, Scouting, bowling, summer camp, piano, tae kwon do. Last summer he even took the controls of a small airplane. Next summer he will head off to college in another state.

But there’s at least one thing he has not experienced. He has never heard his parents tell him he has a disability, and they have no plans to do so anytime soon.

“There wasn’t a need to sit and talk to him about it,” said Daniel Camacho’s father, Mark. “What we have done is never focus on things he can’t do but focus on things he can do.”

That doesn’t mean Daniel is unaware that he has challenges. He won’t be just finding that out by seeing this story about himself. But like most young men he is looking ahead – to college, to driving, to having a girlfriend, to getting married.

“I want my life,” Daniel says.

Daniel was born into a family of high achievers. His dad enlisted in the Marines during Vietnam, put himself through law school and is a senior enforcement attorney for the U.S. Department of Transportation. His mom, Linda, has a master’s degree in education and is guidance director at Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City. His four older siblings were academic stars attending prestigious schools and earning postgraduate degrees.

When Daniel was born, things were immediately different. For starters, he had a blocked intestine that required surgery within days and a hole in his heart that required surgery at age 2. That was also the age Daniel began walking.

“We worked it out day by day using our common sense,” Mark Camacho said of the way he and his wife have raised Daniel. “All we could do was treat him like the rest of the kids.”

Pretty much. Daniel had physical therapy and other help through an early-intervention program. But he then went on to preschool and proceeded to graduate on the honor roll from Shawnee Mission South High School. Some of his classes offered special attention and life skills. Others were classes for all students his age.

All along the way his parents made sure Daniel had every opportunity to enjoy growing up and to develop as a person.

“Daniel saw all of his brothers and sister, who were very active,” said Linda Camacho. “When it was his turn, we found ways for him to participate in the same type of activities.”

Daniel has played softball and other sports with the YMCA. When a soccer league said he couldn’t play with younger boys even though he was their size, another league invited him to join them.

Daniel has played floor hockey, and he bowls with the Special Olympics. He has a Spider-Man bowling ball and consistently scores above 100. Daniel wrestled on his high school freshman team.

He was in his school play. He has taken dance practice and performed with the Beyond the Evening Star Theater. Upon graduating from high school, he attended a prom held by the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City.

Daniel has spent time away from his folks doing the camping-canoeing male-bonding thing at summer camps through the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. He has a brown belt in tae kwon do and is working on his black belt.

Tae kwon do instructor Mary Lee, who has witnessed Daniel’s progress since he began lessons in 2001, credited his diligence.

“Because of Daniel’s concentrated efforts he has been able to surmount many hindrances or hurdles in his pursuit of his goals,” Lee said.

Daniel, obviously, enjoys staying active.

“I’ve never had Daniel come to me and say, `I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to do that,’ ” Linda Camacho said.

High expectations

Between scheduled activities, Daniel loves the Harry Potter movies and enjoys the Disney Channel. He has his own iPod and can use a computer.

Daniel also was a Boy Scout for eight years, earning 37 merit badges. His Eagle project was overseeing the construction of a pair of sturdy storage shelves for the sacramental objects used in his Holy Trinity parish in Lenexa, where he is an altar boy.

Daniel’s friends and family helped him celebrate that accomplishment at the church.

“It’s an honor,” Daniel said of his big day.

There are no official rules for raising children with Down syndrome, but people close to it say it is better to encourage them than to shelter them.

“We tell people don’t underestimate your child and don’t over-help him,” said Amy Allison, executive director of the Down Syndrome Guild of Greater Kansas City. “Let them explore who they are, to enjoy the journey and not get hung up on what we get hung up on in this society, which is perfection.”

Mark Camacho describes himself as an “alpha-dog manic person” who had high expectations for his children, including that they go to college, into the service or get a job and move out at age 18. He had to make an exception for Daniel, yet he says he draws inspiration from his son’s perseverance.

The father’s pride is evident when he shows a visitor photographs and other mementos of his son’s activities. He stands behind Daniel, seated at the kitchen table, and kisses the top of his head. The son rises and puts his arms around his father’s neck.

Nearby are loose-leaf binders and flash cards containing concept lessons like “power of the mind” and the “power of the body.” The two go over and over the material to improve Daniel’s cognitive abilities. Daniel himself keeps spiral notebooks in which he writes words that he hears on television or that simply occur to him. One page had a theme: mind, brain, thinking …

Daniel’s biggest challenge is speech, and he has been getting weekly therapy sessions for years.

“That is his speed bump or road block to getting on in life,” Linda Camacho said.

College bound

Nevertheless, Daniel was accepted to a program at Eastern New Mexico University in Roswell. There he will live in a dorm with a roommate while he works on earning a certificate to enable him to work with preschool children. He is already getting some training assisting with a kindergarten class for half a day, three days a week.

Daniel also gets training in life skills like cooking and shopping at Broadmoor Technical Center in the Shawnee Mission School District, and he attends a class at Johnson County Community College one day a week.

Mark and Linda Camacho are not greatly concerned about their son’s ability to handle being on his own at college.

“He is very social and very likable and that is what I think is going to help carry the day for him,” Linda Camacho said. “When everything else gets in the way for Daniel, he knows how to get along with people and how to win people over. He can make himself known.”

Mark Camacho says anyone who thinks he and his wife have done a disservice to their son by not telling him he has a disability doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.

“I see my son despite his limitations,” he said. “He has a fast-moving mind. The synapses fire and he connects the dots. Sometimes he doesn’t know the dots are there.

“But we work hard and I push him,” Mark Camacho continued. “Because if I don’t push him, here, to learn, to think, to experience things, who the heck is going to do it? I have no qualms because that is a God-given responsibility as a dad.

“I have to help him get ready for life.”

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