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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    New London man with Down syndrome ‘the greatest gift’

    Lonnie Braxton III puts dishes on a tray as he busses a table while working at Puffins Restaurant in Groton on Thursday, June 22, 2023. Braxton has Down syndrome and is a national champion tennis player. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Lonnie Braxton III, left, who has Down syndrome, and his father, Lonnie Braxton II, sit Saturday, June 24, 2023, on the front steps of their home in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Editor’s Note: To read more disability-related stories, read the next edition of More than a Month, coming out on Sunday, July 9.

    New London ― Spend an afternoon with Lonnie Braxton III and the conversation will hit on historical events, the day’s big news stories, old Western TV shows, trips to nearly all 50 states and his national tennis championships.

    It’s a lifetime of achievements and memories for a 53-year-old who wasn’t supposed to live to reach age 20.

    “They were wrong,” his father, Lonnie Braxton II said during a recent interview at their home.

    Braxton III was born with Down syndrome in 1969, when parents commonly were told their children would not live past age 10, 15, or in Braxton’s case, 18.

    The syndrome, named for British physician John Langdon Down, who published a detailed description of the condition in 1866, causes developmental disabilities and risks of medical ailments.

    In 1959, French physician Jerome Lejeune discovered that Down syndrome occurs when an extra whole or partial chromosome develops on chromosome 21, giving the individual 47 total chromosomes instead of the usual 46, according to information on the National Down Syndrome Society website.

    “Down syndrome remains the most common chromosomal condition diagnosed in the United States,” the section on Down syndrome on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website stated. “Each year, about 6,000 babies born in the United States have Down syndrome. This means that Down syndrome occurs in about 1 in every 700 babies.”

    It is not an illness or disease, but a condition that occurs randomly and only rarely is traced to heredity, the society emphasized.

    Individuals with Down syndrome run the gamut of abilities, said Kathleen Buck, vice president of program services at Easter Seals in the Norwich Business Park.

    Early diagnosis and services, including speech and physical therapy, proper nutrition and education are key, said Nathan Walker, program manager for adult services at Easter Seals. Individuals with Down syndrome, including Braxton III, often have large tongues and small palates, making speech challenging.

    Braxton II said Lonnie was diagnosed before his first birthday. The dad briefly wondered if his dream of sharing all his loves and passion projects with his son would come to fruition.

    Experts told the family that Seaside in Waterford, then a residential home for children with developmental disabilities, was open.

    “I said, ‘Nah, I’ll take the risk,’” Braxton II said.

    What a ride they have had.

    “I think I have learned more from him than I have ever taught him,” Braxton II said. “You sometimes get the greatest of gifts without knowing it. I think I have received the greatest of gifts without knowing it at first and have spent the rest of my life trying to appreciate it.”

    Braxton II is a self-described geek who was never interested in sports. With encouragement and transportation from longtime friend Gwendolyn Bosco, Braxton III started competing in Special Olympics, first track and then tennis. Framed gold, silver and bronze medals adorn the walls in their Pacific Street home in New London. He has won two gold medals, along with silver and bronze medals. Nearby are framed photos of Braxton III thrusting arms skyward in victory.

    Last month, he won gold and silver medals in singles and doubles tennis competition in Connecticut.

    “And bowling,” the athlete said of his expanding sports interests.

    Not the world, only part of it

    Braxton II radiates pride when tells of his son’s accomplishments. At the national Special Olympics games in Lincoln, Neb., in 2010, on the first day, Braxton III was one point from being eliminated. Never flustered, he came all the way back. As his dad took his seat in the auditorium for the medal presentation, Braxton III knew he was in the top four, but did not yet know he was the gold medal winner.

    After the others were announced, and it became clear, he clasped his hands together and prayed. When his name was called, he thrust his fists in the air, closed his eyes, and his father in the second row could see a couple of tears squirt out. As he stepped onto the pedestal, Braxton III summoned the other three winners to the top spot.

    “It was just unbelievable,” Braxton II said. “At that moment, I saw my parents. I saw the people that raised me as I tried to raise him. Because I had been raised that you are not the world, you are only part of it.”

    Braxton III also loves UConn women’s basketball. Still not a sports fan, his father sometimes got tickets through friends at his alma mater, the UConn law school. Bosco would drive Braxton III to games in Hartford.

    One night after a game, he told his long-divorced father about Bosco: “She really loves me, I’m going to start calling her ‘mom.’”

    Several years later, in 2018, Braxton II and Bosco got married and made it official. Their son was the best man.

    Braxton II said Lonnie III is more than his son. They are best friends and confidants. Together they have restored about 15 Miata cars, made furniture, and built the third floor and the garage at their house, which is needed to hold their massive book collection. When it snows, they clear sidewalks for the entire street.

    “Developmentally disabled does not mean you’re stupid,” Braxton II said. “It does not mean you can’t do something. It may take longer. It may not come to you on the first, second or third try, but you can get it. Sometimes, I have to do something 10 to 15 times, but on that 15th try, he’s got it, and he remembers it.”

    Most importantly, Braxton III can hold his own with daily chores and personal finances. He vacuums, sorts and folds the clean laundry and cooks basic meals. He gets up at 5:30 a.m. “without prodding,” his father said, to get ready for work. Braxton III has worked as a server at Puffins Restaurant in Groton for 20 years.

    Family friends save their scrap metal for Braxton III, and he collects bottles and cans for deposits. He uses the money to pay for vacations and to buy books, CDs and DVDs. Braxton III said he is following his family’s tradition of hard work to make money.

    “My grandfather knocked down trees,” he said, motioning the action. “Boom!”

    His father and mother divorced when Lonnie was little. He spent his school days in Leland, Miss., living with his grandparents and aunt while his father lived in New London, worked at Electric Boat and attended Connecticut College and later , the University of Connecticut School of Law.

    In those years, he learned all the family stories, his father said, and learned his grandparents’ work ethic and life’s values.

    The two graduated together in 1988, Braxton III from high school and Braxton II from law school. The son moved back to New London in 2000 and still attends adult education classes once a week. His dad said he learned early that “everyone should go to school, no matter how old you are.”

    Easterseals in Norwich offers a myriad of services to adult participants with developmental disabilities. Currently the program has just six participants with Down syndrome, Buck said, two in the Norwich-based program and six in the East Hartford facility.

    One of the oldest, now 58, works in a group-supported employment in housecleaning at the Coast Guard Academy. The man had worked for about 20 years in the community, then transitioned to the group program for another 19 years, and now is starting to slow down, Buck said, though not yet showing the early onset of dementia common for people with Down syndrome.

    People with Down syndrome also can be prone to diabetes, heart disease, vision and hearing loss.

    At age 53, Braxton III is starting to show signs of mild memory loss, his father said. But the two are nowhere near done with their journey together. Braxton III’s cousin from Florida is visiting this week, and Braxton II will try out the new smoker grill his wife and son bought him for Father’s Day. They have more travels planned, more Special Olympics tournaments and day trips to New York for a play or to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall.

    “If I had to counsel a parent, I would say, be thankful for the gift and open your heart,” Braxton II said of raising a son with developmental disabilities. “And you don’t really have to open your eyes, because if your heart is open, you will see the love you are about to receive, and it is free. It comes with no strings and it will brighten, it will enlighten and it will magnify every day you have, because he has done that for me.”

    c.bessette@theday.com

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