A Dream Come True for a Teen With Down Syndrome

When Anita Stirewalt was asked what her ultimate sports dream would be, she did not hesitate. She enthusiastically shouted, “I want to meet Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 car!” 

This sweet 18-year-old student of New London’s North Stanly High School grew up watching NASCAR races with her father. Every Sunday, Anita and her father would sit and watch—for hours. Anita knows every driver’s name and their car number. She knows who won the NASCAR championship last year and who is winning this year. Nothing gets by this girl when it comes to racing! 

Anita lives with Down syndrome. Her classmates describe her as happy, sweet and always willing to hug someone to brighten their day. She’s a true North Stanly High School Comets fan, attending many after-school sporting events, plus she is a four-time Special Olympics medal winner. After considering several students, it seemed only fitting that the school’s Jr. Dream Team chose Anita to be the recipient of a sports dream come true.  

The Jr. Dream Team program, which was created by Charlotte-based nonprofit organization Dream On 3, partners a select group of high school students with staff leaders from Dream On 3 to plan, organize and raise funds for the recipient of a Dream Experience.  

Initially, the North Stanly High School Jr. Dream Team worked to get to know each other better, and then they partnered with Anita’s teachers, Julie and J.P. Furr, to learn more about Anita—her likes, dislikes and wishes.  

“We have had the privilege of teaching Anita for the past four years, and it has become more and more evident with each passing day just how exceptional this young lady truly is,” Julie says. “She loves unconditionally and celebrates the moments bestowed upon her, both simple and extraordinary.” 

The Jr. Dream Team met and planned throughout the majority of the 2018-2019 school year. They created “Finishing with Anita” T-shirts and hosted a talent show to raise funds to assist with the cost of Anita’s dream.  

The planning and preparing came to an overwhelming conclusion the day Anita was to be sent off on her Dream Experience. The entire school participated in an energetic pep rally on the football field. The band played, the cheerleaders cheered “A-N-I-T-A!”, and Lugnut (Charlotte Motor Speedway’s mascot) escorted Anita to the field. Once Anita’s dream was revealed, and it was announced that it was to start now, she could not contain her joy—or her tears.  

“It was amazing to see how eight students came together to strategically plan a sports dream for Anita. … Anita’s reaction and excitement were reactions that I will never forget and will talk about for years to come,” says Ingrid Wyrick, North Stanly High School guidance secretary and Jr. Dream Team liaison.

Anita was whisked away in a limo to Concord’s Great Wolf Lodge where she would spend the weekend. On Friday, May 17, Anita’s ultimate sports dream became reality! Treated like a VIP, this lovable teen was afforded the opportunity to not only meet Jimmie Johnson but to also take a tour of his team’s shop; sit in his racecar; and have a shopping spree at the Hendrick Team Store, courtesy of Johnson’s sponsor, Ally Racing.  

Anita’s dream did not stop there! After her visit to Hendrick’s, Anita was given a VIP tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown Charlotte and had additional time with Johnson and many other drivers when she attended the All-Star Race Driver’s meeting on Saturday, May 18. Watching the race from a speedway condominium, along with her Jr. Dream Team (who had been waiting at the condo to surprise her) capped off her amazing Dream Experience.  

This all-inclusive, star-studded VIP Dream Experience was coordinated by Charlotte-area organization Dream On 3. This nonprofit works with professional athletes and sports teams to make dreams come true for children ages 5 to 21 with chronic illnesses, developmental disabilities or life-altering conditions. Dream Kids are referred to the organization via local health care and Intellectual or Developmental Disabilities resource providers.  

The Jr. Dream Team program has affected approximately 34,400 students and empowered more than150 student leaders since its inception in 2015. During the 2018-2019 school year, Dream On 3 program directors worked with 15 schools in two states. Dream On 3 looks for that number to increase as faculty members and school administration seek out programs that instill kindness and empathy into their school culture.  
 
For more information or ways to join the huddle, follow Dream On 3 on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) or visit DreamOn3.org.  

Save the Date: The Business Leaders of Charlotte will be hosting its 15th annual Charity Golf Classic on Oct. 1 at Raintree Country Club. All proceeds raised from the tournament will be donated to Dream On 3. Play as a foursome or as an individual, or even sign up to be a sponsor. For more information, visit BusinessLeadersOfCharlotte.com.