Thomas Vander Woude's sacrifice honored with memorial fund

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Six and a half years ago, Thomas S. Vander Woude died while trying to save his youngest son, Joseph, who had fallen into a septic tank on the family's farm. Joseph, who has Down syndrome, was hospitalized but made a full recovery.

Now, this embodiment of sacrificial love will be honored with a memorial fund that aims to improve the lives of individuals with Down syndrome and save the lives of countless more.

The fund will be launched March 21, World Down Syndrome Day, through the Jérôme Lejeune Foundation USA, which provides research, care and advocacy for people with genetic intellectual disabilities.

"I think there's a real compatibility in what Thomas Vander Woude did, the sacrifice he made and our work," said Mark Bradford, president of the Philadelphia-based foundation. "We believe in the value and inherent dignity of every human person. Every person born with a disability should be treasured."

Rejecting a throwaway culture

Vander Woude wore numerous hats and touched many hearts in the Arlington Diocese. The father of seven boys was a former Vietnam fighter pilot and retired airline pilot who coached basketball and soccer at Seton School in Manassas and served as the men's basketball coach and athletic director at Christendom College in Front Royal.

Following his death in September 2008, Vander Woude's story spread beyond the diocese, all the way to Louisville, Ky., and to Penny Michalak, whose daughter Elena Rose was born with Down syndrome earlier that year.

A donation by the organization created in Elena Rose's honor, Angels in Disguise, established the Thomas S. Vander Woude Memorial Fund for Research in Down Syndrome.

Vander Woude's action "powerfully contradicts" how the world sees Down syndrome children, said Michalak, whose nonprofit promotes Down syndrome awareness and appreciation through musical concerts and other events. "Here's a man who literally dies in the worst possible filth to save his son with Down syndrome, and the world is just throwing these children away."

The new fund comes at a critical time, said Bradford.

A relatively new and noninvasive screening test for Down syndrome at nine weeks gestation is leading more parents to abort their child, he said. And unlike diagnostic tests, such as amniocentesis, which are conducted later in pregnancy and are more accurate, screenings often prove false.

Abortion rates following an in utero Down syndrome diagnosis can be as high as 93 percent, depending on geographic location, according to a 2012 study published in the journal "Prenatal Diagnosis."

"Every day people are making the decision to reject Down syndrome children through abortion," said Bradford.

Advocacy is important, he said, but "we also need to give families hope that they can lead as typical lives as possible. We can't really stand in the breach (to prevent abortions) until we do so."

The memorial fund will focus on prenatal therapies, quality of life and ways to improve speech and language capabilities. Bradford hopes the fund eventually can disperse $250,000 annually.

They change 'your outlook on life'

In 1958, Jérôme Lejeune, a devout Catholic who is considered by many as the father of modern genetics, discovered that the presence of an extra 21st chromosome causes Down syndrome.

Ironically and tragically, Lejeune's discovery allowed for a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and subsequently to countless abortions. Anticipating such a consequence, Lejeune dedicated himself to improving the lives of those with genetic intellectual disabilities.

"His outspoken belief in the value of every human life and his opposition to abortion cost him the friendship of many of his colleagues, his research funding and some believe a Nobel Prize," according to Bradford.

Lejeune's personal holiness merited him the title "servant of God," and in 2012 the diocesan phase of his canonization cause was concluded and the process was transferred to Rome.

Having his father's name associated with Jérôme Lejeune is "incredible," said Father Thomas P. Vander Woude, Thomas and Mary Ellen's oldest son and pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville.

Father Vander Woude said the fund is a beautiful tribute to his father and to those with Down syndrome.

A family member with special needs "changes your outlook on life," he said. "When you talk to a family with a Down syndrome child, they know love, forgiveness, joy."

Individuals with Down syndrome "don't put on airs; what you see is what you get," said Father Vander Woude. "It's very refreshing."

"This fund will be a great good for the Down syndrome community," added Mary Ellen. "And it will honor my husband for what he did. The love that he had for his son - that will be manifested through his name being there."

Bradford, who also has a son with Down syndrome, said children with genetic intellectual disabilities teach you to change your expectations and slow down. During a trip to Home Depot, for example, Bradford said his son was walking up to strangers and extending his arms for a hug. "They help you get over any self-consciousness," he said.

"Many fathers think they cannot love a child with special needs," said Bradford. "But Thomas Vander Woude's actions are an example of just how deep their love can be."

To donate

Go here, call 267/403-2910 or send a check to:

Jérôme Lejeune Foundation USA

Attention: Vander Woude Memorial Fund

6397 Drexel Road

Philadelphia, PA 19151

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015