Smith: 5-year-old James was thrilled to walk a single lap, then this happened

It was a big deal for the 5-year-old “Mayor of Madrone Elementary” to walk a single lap around the playground track.

Pre-kindergartener James O'Leary is an adorable, loving soul who was born with Down syndrome and a heart defect. If that weren't enough, he lives also with a muscle-tone issue that causes him to tucker out quickly.

“Walking is hard for him,” said his mother, Larkin O'Leary.

So at his school's Sept. 20 walk-a-thon, a fundraiser for field trips and classroom supplies and such, James wasn't going to be one of the kids who walked or skipped or ran or walked-skipped-ran lap after lap.

Those kids earned colorful bracelets that walk-a-thon co-chairs Cheri Costello and Tanner Moulding conceived as a way to make the event more fun and to inspire the Rincon Valley school's students to complete as many laps as they could.

Madrone's 4- and 5-year-olds would earn a purple bracelet for four laps, a red one for eight, orange for 12, green for 18, blue for 24 and gold for 32.

All of the school's more than 410 students were encouraged ahead of time to obtain cash pledges from relatives, friends and neighbors.

The afternoon of the Walk in Paradise benefit, James O'Leary, who's largely nonverbal but uses more than 400 hand signs, set off on the track with great verve. Beloved at the grade school, he was cheered and praised as he bore down and finished one lap.

He beamed to cross the finish line.

“I was so incredibly proud of James that he made it around the track one time,” his mom posted on Facebook, “because to him that's a marathon!”

Added Larkin O'Leary, “You don't win any prizes for going around the track one time, but that's OK, we were just so proud of him that he could do it.”


A BIT LATER, James and his mom were seated at a lunch table among a bunch of other Madrone students and parents taking a break from the Walk in Paradise event and the afternoon's games and face painting and other activities.

Larkin noticed that an older boy and his mother were looking over at James. The older student's mom asked him, “Is that the boy you were talking about?” The older boy said yes, then stood and walked over to James.

That older kid was Landyn Fitzgerald, a sixth grader who's about to turn 12. He told little James he knows that walking is hard for him.

“So today,” Landyn said, “I walked for you.”


WITH THAT, Landyn handed James two of three bracelets he'd earned for completing 25 laps. Then Landyn motioned to one of his feet.

He was wearing one of those clumsy, therapeutic boots. Needing the protection for an inflamed heel bone, Landyn hadn't let the boot stop him from walking laps for himself and James.

“That's the kind of kid he is. He likes to help people,” said Landyn's mother, Caron Fitzgerald.

She recalled that about a week before the afternoon of fun and fundraising at Madrone he'd told her he would walk for James.

“He wasn't expecting to get any recognition for it,” Landyn's mom said.


THAT ACT by Landyn Fitzgerald blew away James' mom.

“It seems like a small gesture, but for us, that will never be forgotten,” Larkin O'Leary said.

She works hard at educating and encouraging children and adults to be more at-ease around and accepting of people with disabilities. O'Leary and friend Jessica Hunter, whose daughter, Annalise, lives with Down syndrome, speak at many schools a year of how everyone benefits when no one is excluded and treated as different.

O'Leary and Hunter call themselves Just Two Moms. They talk about Down syndrome and about how we are all different, and how we all have strengths and weaknesses and labels.

“We went to 22 schools last year,” O'Leary said. She and Hunter are set to speak at 17 so far this school year.

“The more we talk about it with kids, the more we normalize all our differences,” O'Leary said.

Among the students she and Hunter spoke to last year about the power of inclusion were those at Madrone School. Landyn Fitzpatrick heard that talk.

James O'Leary's mother said that what Landyn did at the walk-a-thon “just makes us feel included and important, and seen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and

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