All photos via GoFundMe/Bring Leo Home
When Samuel Forrest first met his newborn son Leo, he fell in love. “They took me in see him and I looked at this guy and I said, he’s beautiful,” he told ABC news. “He’s perfect and I’m absolutely keeping him.”
It’s the reaction one hopes any father would have, except Leo’s mother didn’t feel the same way. Leo was born with Down Syndrome in a hospital in Armenia, where there is still little awareness and education about the condition. “[Leo’s] mother refused to even look at or touch the newborn for fear of getting attached in a society where defects are not accepted, often bringing shame on the family involved,” Forrest writes on his GoFundMe page, where he’s raising money to enable him to care for Leo as a single dad. He plans to return to his home country of New Zealand, where his family lives, and “where Leo can have a quality of life and acceptance, integration into society that sadly, is not yet possible in Armenia.”
Forrest posted his GoFundMe page on January 27 with an original goal of $60,000. The money would go toward raising Leo full-time for at least a year, and “to give him the love, cuddles and devotion he needs to thrive.” That goal was met in nine days—but after Samuel’s plight was covered by the media, the fundraising efforts really took off. Less than 24 hours later, at the time of this article’s writing, Forrest had collected nearly $350,000 in donations – and the messages of support continue to pour in.
“What a beautiful baby. He is blessed to have a father who will make certain to give his son what he needs to thrive,” wrote one commenter. “There is not a single thing wrong with your beautiful son! My uncle has Down’s and let me tell you, he is the best uncle on the planet!” wrote another.
The page has had nearly 10,000 shares, more than 1,200 comments, and donations from nearly 12,000 people.
In an update posted on his GoFundMe page Friday morning, Forrest wrote: “Thanks everyone – we are stunned beyond words at the incredible support & love you’ve shown for little Leo. … Some of the additional funds that we have raised will be used to secure better living conditions in Auckland, and to give Leo higher quality opportunities when it comes to education - a good home and school cost money, but Leo will have all that and more, thanks to you. We will use some of the money you’ve given to fund facilities and programs here in Armenia that will support future parents to keep their kids despite all disabilities, and to help better care for the special ones who end up away from their Mom & Dad. We’d also like to share the surplus funds with the only orphanage in Armenia that regularly takes abandoned Down Syndrome babies as well as other organizations that can help these children – thanks to your support we can start to make a difference already.”
Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down Syndrome Society, says there are a number of countries where awareness of the condition isn’t where it should be. “There are several countries that are behind the curve not only when it comes to providing services and support and more independence for people with disabilities but also in terms of institutionalizing people with disabilities,” she says. “We faced these battles in the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s, and fortunately we are way past that.”
Armenia is, according to UNICEF, one of those countries. “According to official statistics, there are over 8,000 children with disabilities living in the Republic of Armenia, many of which have been isolated from society and are excluded from mainstream education,” says UNICEF’s information on the country.
Weir says lack of education is especially a concern when children are diagnosed post-natally, as Leo was. “Parents who need information aren’t always getting it,” she says. “I wish this mother would have known what people with Down Syndrome can accomplish in 2015. They are getting full-time jobs, getting married, having relationships, going to college. Here in the U.S. we have over 250 post-secondary programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are higher expectations than ever before about what people can accomplish.”
But despite the heart-breaking beginning, Weir says she’s encouraged by how Leo’s story is turning out. “It’s sad that his mom didn’t have the full picture, but at the same time, it’s uplifting that his father fell in love with his child. It didn’t matter that his son had any disabilities, he wants to be a father. He’s embracing the true essence of how we want people to view individuals with Down Syndrome so they can lead meaningful and purposeful lives,” she says. “What he’s doing is noble, but it’s also just the right thing.”