Heading off to college is a major accomplishment for any recent high school graduate, but it’s even more special for St. Cloud resident Faith Duncan.
That’s because Faith - a sweet, bubbly teenager with an infectious, ambitious attitude - was diagnosed with Down syndrome when she was born. Graduating high school came with more hurdles and challenges than it did for her peers, but like her first name suggests, Faith and her parents never lost faith that she would succeed and graduate with plans for college.
“We knew she could do it,” said Duncan’s father, Mike. “We always knew she had it in her.”
Faith was the first Down syndrome student to receive a scholarship from the Education Foundation-Osceola County earlier this month.
“When I got the scholarship, it made me feel really happy inside because I knew I had done right by the community,” Faith said.
Faith hasn’t let her disability define her or slow her down. In fact, her list of accomplishments and awards is impressive for any student her age – and Faith says she’s just getting started.
Faith spent all four years of high school joining clubs, staying active, getting good grades and becoming an advocate for young people with Down syndrome.
She’s racked up a list of achievements along the way, including the 2017 David R. Roberts Youth in Philanthropy Award, the Jeannie Bronstein Citizenship Award, and in March, the Blake Pyron Entrepreneurial Award. She’s also recently been featured in an October issue of Woman’s World Magazine and Orlando the City Magazine.
In addition to graduating St. Cloud High School last week with a traditional diploma and a 3.2 GPA, Faith is a gifted seamstress, knitting and embroidering baby blankets for infants diagnosed with Down syndrome along with pillowcases for cancer patients.
Her parents first introduced Faith to sewing when she was about 15 years old to help improve her fine motor skills. She latched on to the hobby and worked diligently at her stitches and needlework each day after school. She even operates a small online store where she sells her wears, www.imperfectcreations.net.
The baby blankets are a small way for Faith to say thanks to the Down Syndrome Society of Central Florida for their help, and a gesture of goodwill to parents embarking on a new journey raising a child with special needs.
“I like making the baby blankets for parents because it’s a way for them to know one day their baby will be able to do things and not give up,” Faith said.
Her father said sewing is another way to help Faith overcome her physical and mental limitations.
“Most of the things we encourage her to do are to help improve some aspect of her life and acts as therapy,” Mike said.
Mike and his wife, Nancy, learned that their second daughter had Downs Syndrome when she was a day old. The couple’s strong Christian faith made them take the diagnosis in stride. The Duncans begin planning the best way to help their daughter. They wanted her to have a beautiful, meaningful life, Mike said, regardless of a diagnosis.
Mike recalls dropping his young daughter off at physical therapy when she was a toddler. He noticed the special equipment and games used at the center to educate children with Down syndrome.
“We started buying our own equipment, one piece at a time,” he said. “We had fun with it, but we worked with her on some kind of therapy constantly.”
Nancy, a stay at home mom, provided personalized activities and exercises to hone the abilities Faith would need to be a productive adult “in the real world.”
The couple enrolled Faith in activities like dance to help her coordination and socialize her with kids from all walks of life. They filed an Independent Education Plan (IEP) with the school district so Faith could stay in general education courses and, one day, attain a regular diploma.
Even though her IEP made allowances for Faith, the outgoing student always strived to achieve just as much as her fellow classmates.
“If the class was assigned 50 problems, she would always try and do them all,” Mike said. “Even if she only had to do 10, that wasn’t good enough. She always pushed herself to do them all.”
It hasn’t always been easy, though. Faith has received unwavering support from her parents, older sister and some members of the community, but high school can be tough for any student with a disability.
“I would eat lunch by myself sometimes,” Faith said. “Making friends isn’t always easy.”
But high school isn’t everything, and the Duncans kept their eye on the ultimate prize – college.
After doing some research, Faith decided to major in American Sign Language (ASL). She and her parents had communicated with each other using ASL when Faith was young and still developing her verbal communication skills.
Now that she’s older, she thinks ASL will make a great major because it will let her help other people with disabilities.
“I think it will be a way for me to give back to the community even more than I already have,” she said.
But like other times in her life, paying for college proved to be another hurdle to overcome.
That’s because the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship – the financial aid option that helps thousands of students across the state attend community college debt-free – hinges partially on ACT or SAT scores.
Because of her disability, completing the standardized test wasn’t an option for Faith. Her parents even lobbied the College Board and Statehouse directly, but to no avail.
The situation frustrated Mike and Nancy. They wanted a productive, successful life for their daughter, as most parents do.
But like working and middle class families across the country, they didn’t want to see those doors of opportunity close due to a lack of financial aid.
“If we want students with Down syndrome to be contributing members of society, we have to give them a viable avenue when they prove they are capable,” Mike said. “Getting them to high school graduation and then going ‘Okay, you have to figure it out from here,’ simply isn’t good enough.”
The entire family began searching for private scholarships Faith could qualify for. They snagged one through Chik-fil-A, where Faith has worked part-time for three years.
There’s been a couple small ones along the way, and then earlier this month, she also accepted one through Education Foundation Osceola County.
Faith now has enough college tuition to get through two to three semesters at Valencia Community College, and the young woman doesn’t plan to stop pursuing other financial aid opportunities moving forward.
And she has even bigger plans for her future.
Once she wraps up at Valencia College, Faith dreams of transferring to Florida State University to attain her bachelor’s degree in ASL.
Mom and dad aren’t crazy about the idea at the moment; they think it’s a little too far from home. But just like every teenager, Faith can be a little stubborn sometimes.
“He says he doesn’t want me to go to Florida State, but look at that shirt,” Faith said, pointing at Mike’s maroon colored polo. “He’s wearing school colors right now! I think that’s a sign, dad.”
She giggled and her father eventually cracked a smile.
“She’s a very determined person,” her father said.
The pride in his voice is unwavering, the way it is for parents who realize their children are at the threshold of true independence, but who still worry about what lies beyond that open door.
“She’s already achieved so much,” he said. “No one can stop her once she puts her mind to something.”