Four-Year-Old Winnie Hostetler Raises Down Syndrome Awareness
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided by Amy Payne & Heather Weiss Gregg
Abby Hostetler has always loved working with special-needs individuals, so she was thrilled in 2016 to take a job at Plainfield High School (PHS) teaching the Life Skills class. There are two special-needs classes at the high school. One is for high-functioning students who assimilate into the general population for certain classes. The other class is for mostly nonverbal students with more severe needs. While they do some academic lessons in reading, math and science, as the name implies, the class involves life skills such as cooking, grocery shopping and socializing.
“We focus on the skills you need to function and be a socialized part of society,” Hostetler says. For instance, students deliver mail within the school and collect recycling items. They also wipe down tables in the cafeteria.
The first year Hostetler worked at PHS, she met a student named Kyle DeHoff, who was 16 at the time. Kyle has autism and Down syndrome, and is mostly nonverbal.
“Abby was his absolute favorite,” says Beth DeHoff, Kyle’s mom.
The teacher-student bond grew over time as the Hostetler and DeHoff families became friends. In 2018 Hostetler took a break from teaching to give birth to her daughter, Winnie. When she began subbing in the classroom, she brought Winnie with her.
“The kids in the class called Winnie their Life Skills baby,” Hostetler says. “It’s really a family production because my husband, Thomas, who is a Plainfield firefighter, would go on field trips with us.”
When DeHoff was pregnant with Kyle and learned that her baby would be born with Down syndrome, she and her husband, Brad, along with their two other sons, attended the Buddy Walk, a charity walk that takes place every October to raise money for Down Syndrome Indiana.
“It was a life-changing event for us because we saw these normal families who happened to have a family member with Down syndrome,” says DeHoff, who serves on the governor’s council for people with disabilities, as well as the board for League of Miracles, a special-needs baseball league in Camby.
Ever since then, the DeHoffs have participated in the annual Buddy Walk. The Hostetlers began joining the DeHoffs on the walk several years ago. This year Hostetler asked Winnie if she wanted to do some fundraising for the event. Four-year-old Winnie asked what fundraising was and how to do it.
“We googled different ways to raise money for a cause, and when Winnie heard lemonade stand, she was sold,” Hostetler says.
They decided that the Quaker Day Festival would be the perfect time to set up her lemonade stand. Because they live in the heart of downtown Plainfield, they would be in the middle of all the action. Winnie set up her stand, selling both yellow and blue lemonade, as those are the colors that represent Down syndrome.
Within moments of the parade ending, a line of 15 people formed. For the next hour and a half, Winnie welcomed a steady flow of customers, including church friends, work colleagues, three Plainfield fire trucks and two ambulances.
Hostetler guessed that her daughter would raise around $300, but she brought in $1,300 for Down Syndrome Indiana. Winnie has always had a heart for individuals with special needs. Hostetler recalls a time when Winnie was 2 years old and they were at the local splash pad. A young adult with special needs was sitting on the ground doing repetitive movements because he was overstimulated.
“He was really excited because he liked all the water, so he was rocking back and forth,” Hostetler says. “I stood back and watched as Winnie approached him. She sat next to him, but a good distance away, not in his space, and she spoke to him like she would anybody else.”
Winnie said “Hi,” and the man smiled but didn’t respond. Though he was nonverbal, that didn’t stop her or scare her away. She kept interacting in a positive manner, fine with the fact that he wasn’t responding the way that she’s used to. This has always been who she is. Just prior to the Quaker Day parade, Kyle and his family were inside the Hostetlers’ house when DeHoff noticed that Winnie’s little cousin was hesitant to get close to Kyle. Winnie took her cousin into the bedroom and closed the door, whispering loudly to those in the other room, “I need privacy because I’m telling her that she doesn’t have to be afraid of Kyle.”
“At just 4 years old, Winnie is such a little advocate,” DeHoff says. “Because of her mom’s job, she has hung out with people with disabilities since she was a baby. Those with disabilities are just normal people to her, and truly, that’s what they are.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of people with special needs,” Hostetler adds. “Just treat them like you do anyone else. If a 4-year-old can see that and do that, everyone else can too.”
DeHoff stresses that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have the same feelings as everyone else. They get excited when people are nice to them and they get hurt when nobody wants to talk to them.
“We’re all born to crave connection with others,” DeHoff says. “That’s not any different for people with disabilities. Even people who don’t speak a lot love it when people want to talk to them. There are ways to communicate with anybody.”
This is why the DeHoffs have always made an effort to involve Kyle in a number of activities. For instance, he enjoys riding horses, playing baseball, swimming and participating in theater. He also loves bowling, watching movies and going to amusement parks – especially riding the carousel.
“He has a lot of interests for someone who doesn’t have a lot of words,” DeHoff says. “He’s able to let us know what he likes and doesn’t like.”
Last May Kyle graduated from Plainfield High School. His dad, Brad, who had been a middle-school science teacher in Plainfield for years, chose to retire at the end of the school year so that he could become Kyle’s caregiver.
This fall Hostetler began doing respite care with Kyle two days per week. Whenever he comes to the Hostetler house, Winnie is excited to greet him.
“Kyle is 23 and Winnie is 4,” DeHoff says. “He’s nonverbal and she’s very verbal, but they have this cool friendship.”
Hostetler says she wouldn’t be surprised if Winnie chooses to become a special-needs teacher because she adores these individuals so much. In fact, when Winnie spotted a baby doll with Down syndrome at Barnes & Noble, she fell in love with it.
“Winnie has always sought out the people who aren’t loved on by society as much,” Hostetler says. “She seems to have a knack for finding them and showing them extra love.”