Julia Banahan of Phoenix is an ambassador for the Best Buddies of Arizona program, a choir member at St. Thomas the Apostle Church and a hostess-in-training at Aunt Chilada’s Mexican restaurant.
But it’s as a volunteer at Phoenix Children’s Hospital where Banahan, 26, really shines. Born with Down syndrome, she’s a role model for other kids and their parents.
“I am sweet and kind and thoughtful about them, and I think they are comfortable with me,” Banahan says about volunteering at the Pediatric Down Syndrome Clinic, where families of children with Down syndrome get help navigating life.
Clinic coordinator Kiran Aurora says Banahan’s volunteer work “gives parents a sense of, ‘This is what my child can do when they reach this age.’ It gives families hope. At the end of the visit, they will say, ‘Thanks.’ They’re glad they got to meet Julia.”
Founded in 2013, the Pediatric Down Syndrome Clinic at Barrow Neurological Institute at Phoenix Children’s Hospital gives families extra help beyond what their primary pediatrician might offer, says Dr. Robin Blitz, the clinic’s director and a developmental pediatrician.
Children with Down syndrome — a genetic disorder that often includes physical-growth delays and learning disabilities — have a higher risk for certain medical conditions, including heart, hearing and respiratory problems.
Families can get physical-, occupational- and speech-therapy evaluations at the clinic, and a virtual team of specialists includes neurologists, cardiologists, endocrinologists, gastroenterologists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists and pulmonologists.
Paula Banahan, Julia’s mother and board president for Raising Special Kids, a nonprofit support organization for parents and families navigating disabilities, applauds the work being done at the clinic. She sees her daughter as someone who encourages other families of children with Down syndrome.
“Parents just don’t even know what they don’t know, and it’s been an inspiration to have Julia in there,” says Paula, who also is executive director of the Arizona Heart Foundation.
Aurora says the Pediatric Down Syndrome Clinic also helps parents make sure their children are getting what they need when it comes to education.
“They all go to their district school or their charter school within Arizona,” Aurora says. “They might get specialized instruction in certain content areas, and a lot of our children are also fully included with typical peers. It’s gotten a lot better, I think, as far as I’ve been teaching; there’s been a big push for inclusion and having children included in academic settings so that they’re with their typical peers.”
The clinic helps parents navigate all of these often unfamiliar waters. More than 300 families from throughout Arizona have come for help. Julia works in the office and interacts with the families, sometimes reading to the younger children.
“I am always there for everybody, because I am everybody’s role model,” Julia says.
Julia also is a twin. Bobby Banahan acknowledges he’s a protective older brother; he was born just two minutes earlier. The brother-sister duo continue to inspire one another.
“Sometimes my brother teases me, but I know he also loves me,” Julia says, referring to the times when Bobby and their parents show up to talk about the clinic and Julia’s role.
Paula Banahan says her daughter was determined to graduate from high school with her brother — and did, getting her diploma from Shadow Mountain High School.
“I surprised everybody!” Julia says.
Not quite everybody. Julia’s family has watched her achieve other goals, including completing the Brookline College Certified Nursing Assistant Program and enrolling in Phoenix College.
Despite the challenges his twin faces, Bobby says he would not want her to be any different.
“I feel like we are both here for different reasons. She has her reasons that she’s here and I have mine, but I think together it’s a good tag team, a good tag-team duo.”
“I am lucky,” Julia says.
Bobby agrees. “Would I change it? No,” he says. “Would anything else be any better? No, I don’t think so.”
Pediatric Down Syndrome Clinic at Phoenix Children’s Hospital
602-933-2327 • barrow.phoenixchildrens.org/programs-services/down-syndrome
Clinic appointments — available on the second, third and fourth Tuesdays of each month — may include visits with physical, occupational and speech therapists, followed by visits with developmental pediatricians and geneticists. All new patients need referrals from a primary-care physician.