Jared Baker Finds Joy in Each Day
Photography Provided by Amy Payne & Amy Phipps Photography
Often it’s the warm, genuine smile that draws you in. That, combined with the infectious joy and gentle kindness that often exudes from individuals born with Down syndrome, is what makes them truly special. Jared Baker, 21, is one of these exceptional people. In many ways, he’s like any other 21-year-old who likes to hang out with friends, play video games, watch wrestling on TV, and dance when music starts to play.
Originally from southern Indiana, Cheryl and Ray Baker lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a while, and in the fall of 2005 they chose to move back closer to family when their children Jared and Kyleigh were 6 and 2. Cheryl began researching various school systems, as schooling was the driving factor in their decision.
“I interviewed all these different schools, asking about inclusion,” Cheryl says. “We didn’t want Jared to be pulled into a special ed room. He learns from other kids’ behavior so we needed him to be around that. Everywhere we went, I was told, ‘We’ll do our best to get him into the classroom.’”
Then she spoke to representatives from the Avon Community School Corporation, who told her inclusion is their number-one goal.
“That’s the whole reason we moved to Avon, and they never did let us down,” Cheryl says. “I always say that our family could be Avon’s spokesperson because we believe in them so much.”
Cheryl describes her son as eternally upbeat, loving, caring and thoughtful.
“He’s got a heart of gold,” she says.
He enjoys going to services at Kingsway Christian Church and participating in Monday night life groups with the church, where he often requests to lead the prayers.
For several years, Jared was cast in The Biz Academy of Musical Theatre’s musicals, including “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz.” He has also been asked to sing the national anthem at various football games, basketball games and track meets.
When Jared was in seventh grade, an announcement came over the intercom system about wrestling. Right then and there, Jared got up and walked down to the coach’s office to share his interest in joining the team.
“When he got home that night, he announced, ‘I’m wrestling!’” recalls Ray, a senior territory manager for Ecolab. “His dream was to always have the official raise his arm for the win.”
Jared not only wrestled all through middle school, but in high school he also participated in Unified Track and Field, which is comprised of students with and without disabilities.
“He did it all – the long jump, shot put, relays,” Ray says.
He also played Upward soccer in his youth.
“We never held Jared back on anything he wanted to pursue,” Cheryl says.
While at Avon High School (AHS), Jared participated in the work-study program. During his freshman year he worked the breakfast cart, and went around to rooms selling breakfast items to faculty, staff and students.
“You had the pusher, the stocker, the knocker and the money taker,” says Jared, describing the four jobs involved with the breakfast cart.
Next, he worked in a cafeteria cleaning tables. The following year he took the bus from the high school to the YMCA where he folded towels and wiped down exercise equipment.
He later bussed tables and refilled drinks at McAlister’s Deli in Plainfield. In 2018, Jared graduated from AHS. Now he works several shifts per week at Applebee’s, where he wipes down tables, fills straw dispensers and salt and pepper shakers, and grabs high chairs when needed. He has a job coach there who helps guide him. Tom Wilson, Applebee’s manager, calls Jared a pure pleasure.
“He always has a smile on his face,” Wilson says.
Jared is a fairly independent guy. He gets himself up, makes himself breakfast, puts on his work clothes, and watches out the window for the LINK bus through Sycamore Services, which takes him to and from Applebee’s.
“Since my husband and I work full time, having the option of the bus is essential,” Cheryl says. “If it weren’t for [Sycamore Services], Applebee’s would probably not be possible because there would be no transportation. The LINK bus gives him independence to not rely on family, and makes this whole job experience his own.”
After his shift, the bus picks him up and drops him at home where he showers, then makes himself lunch.
“He’s very responsible,” Cheryl says. “The work-study program helped so much with growing his independence.”
The past 20 months have been difficult for many people, and Jared is no exception. The social butterfly had his wings clipped when COVID-19 prompted him to become more reserved. When church doors closed, work paused, and friends and family stopped dropping by, life as he knew it ceased to exist.
“Except for walks around the block, he didn’t leave the house,” Cheryl says.
It was a lot to process, so when businesses and options started to open back up, anxiety gripped him because the world seemed scary. Thankfully, after meeting with a behavior therapist, he has begun to feel optimistic again.
“Now whenever I go out to the grocery or Menards or anywhere, Jared asks to go with me,” says Cheryl, deputy treasurer for Avon Community School Corporation.
Jared attends recreational therapy as well as behavior and music therapy throughout the week, and has a girlfriend named Carrie, whom he’s been dating since 2016. He has big plans for the future.
“I want to buy a car, get married, get a house and have a dog,” Jared says.
His sister Kyleigh has always been one of his most devoted supporters. She’s currently a freshman at Indiana University, but when she’s home, she helps get him to doctor’s appointments and to friends’ houses.
“Kyleigh and Jared love to go on Chick-fil-A runs or Speedway to get slushies,” Cheryl says.
With Kyleigh away at college, there is an empty space now. Though the family misses her greatly, her parents see a silver lining in her freedom.
“She’s always had to live in Jared’s shadow,” Cheryl says. “At college she’s not just ‘Jared’s sister’ to everyone. She gets to have her own identity for the first time.”
Thankfully, Jared still has his base of friends, which has remained strong since graduation.
“Daily, he talks to his best friend Laz on FaceTime, and to Carrie,” Cheryl says. “There are usually several friends on the group chat. Plus, they regularly get together for picnics, birthday parties, swim outings, movie screenings, sleepovers and restaurant outings.”
Cheryl acknowledges that it takes a whole team to give Jared the independence to live a fulfilled life. They feel fortunate to have found that team in the folks of Hendricks County, from Avon schools providing the education and training to allow him to be employable, to Sycamore Services providing the LINK bus, to Applebee’s giving him great employment, to the therapists and job coaches who make him successful, to his sister and family – and to the many people who support and cheer him on daily.
“It takes a village to make this one thing such as a job at Applebee’s a success,” Cheryl says. “Things we take for granted for ourselves or our other children, it takes so much more planning and support for a person with a disability. He can do it, and he is doing it, but only because of all the support he receives in Avon.”