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Petaluma Profile: John Busick, advocate for kids with Down syndrome

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When a child is born with a disability, the family undergoes change and challenge.

John and Angela Busick of Petaluma experienced this when their firstborn, Jack, arrived nine years ago with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder. At first, their sole focus was Jack and his needs. But gradually they expanded their concern to include other children and families with similar issues. Today, they are the driving force behind the Down Syndrome Association North Bay and the annual Voices 4 Down Syndrome Gala, a fundraiser scheduled for March 23.

John Busick grew up in Petaluma, graduating from Casa Grande High School before going to Chico State for a degree in business management. He is the third-generation owner-operator of Bob Kunst Painting.

“When Angi became pregnant, we elected not to do tests for Down syndrome,” he said. So when the couple rushed to the hospital three weeks before term, alarmed by a shortage of embryonic fluid, they were far from ready for the news that the baby — delivered by C-section — had a condition that affects one in roughly 700 newborns.

“At first, you’re shocked. You cry and grieve. Finally you begin a difficult transition,” Busick said. “You say, ‘Hey, let’s figure this out.’ ”

Fortunately, the Busicks had just relocated to Petaluma, where friends and family could help them.

“Angi and I started meeting different families with similar issues,” he said.

This led to working with Becoming Independent in Santa Rosa. Eventually, it became clear that the Petaluma parents needed to build their own organization. The result was the Down Syndrome Association North Bay.

Meanwhile, at the age of four, Jack was diagnosed with leukemia, beginning a 2½-year course of chemo.

“It was hell,” Busick recalled, “tough on him and a huge stress on us and our marriage.”

But the Busicks pushed on, and John started wondering, in his words, “how we can help our kids seem less ‘foreign’ to others.”

He broached the idea of staging a big event where the workers would be children with Down syndrome. Angela reminded him that Jack was still in cancer treatment. A year later, she blessed the idea, and they went to work organizing the gala.

First, Busick contacted Lombardi Deli, which agreed to help. Then he contacted the Elks about using their space for an event. They were glad to participate. And so it went. Wine, beer, music, flowers, auction items — all donated.

“The last thing I imagined was the impact,” Busick said of the first gala. “We had big construction workers bawling like babies — and we sold 300 tickets and raised $75,000.”

Since then, the annual event has grown in popularity, raising nearly $1 million for educational programs and community-based services that benefit individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

Among the awards at the event are the Inclusive Employer of the Year, for a business that hires people with Down syndrome. Past recipients are Amy’s Kitchen and Oliver’s Markets. New this year will be the Advocate of the Year Award, for an individual with Down syndrome.

The 2019 recipient will be ten-year-old Brady Mauritson of Healdsburg.

Busick credits his grandfather, Bob Kunst, for inspiring him to become an activist. When Kunst retired from the painting business, he became a volunteer director of the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room, which helps feed the hungry in Petaluma.

“I grew up working with him there,” Busick said. “He was a big mentor to me.”

Another influence was high school teacher Lynne Moquete, who took her students to remote, severely impoverished areas of the Dominican Republic to help with construction projects.

Says Busick, “She taught us that the reward for giving is ten times bigger than that of taking.”

Angela feels that public perception of children with Down syndrome has improved in Petaluma in the past five years.

“My biggest message for everyone remains — don’t stare, say hi,” she said.

The Busicks have a second child, Charlie, age 7.

“The boys play together like regular brothers, but I think their relationship is a little sweeter than usual,” Angela said. “We talk openly about Jack’s life being a little harder than most.”

“I wouldn’t change Jack for who he is,” John added. “I want to change the world around him so that people see him as just another person. The biggest struggle for a parent (with Down syndrome) is with the public, not with the child.”