JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Many in the community say Jacksonville resident Debbie Revels is an unsung hero. They say she goes above and beyond without ever seeking the spotlight.
Revels is a founding member of the Down Syndrome Association of Jacksonville. As DSAJ turns 30, it has exploded with programs and services for every age group, as well as sports leagues, hospital packets, lunch 'n' learn, educational speakers and the list goes on.
"When I believe in something, I believe in it and I cannot really rest well when I give up on that dream," Revels said.
Revels dreams big, but don’t let her for a second fool you into thinking she ever gives up easily on one of her visions.
"I do believe the sky is the limit," commented Revels. "I do believe the best is yet to come."
And she lives by this mantra because of how far she’s come… and how far she’s helped propel one organization near and dear to her heart -- the Down Syndrome Association of Jacksonville.
"It started because there was nothing, absolutely nothing in Jacksonville at the time and that was 30 years ago," added Revels. "There was a handful of families that, we kind of, I don’t even know how we found each other but we did!"
In 1989, the founding families of DSAJ recognized the need for education in the community and support for their loved ones with Down syndrome. Revels’ inspiration came from her toddler at the time, Nick.
"I’ve learned a lot from him, probably a lot more than he has learned from us and that has been a beautiful thing about our journey," said Revels.
Nick is now 32 and Revels says there are challenges they face day to day, other obstacles that lie ahead. But she’s so proud of her son, so proud of how accepting our community has become.
"His life is full and it is somewhat complete," added Revels. "But I want more from him, probably more than he does. He has a job. He does live independently. He has a girlfriend. He has friends. He has a supportive family. He is his own person, with all that extra chromosome."
And while Nick has played a huge role in motivating Revels, as the Executive Director of DSAJ she is grateful for the like-minded people she’s surrounded by.
"It was this fledgling organization that was just trying to do good," said DSAJ Board President Jeff Leach. "They said we give money for speech therapy and physical therapy."
Leach met Revels about 15 years ago, new to Jacksonville with a young infant with Down syndrome.
"...And I was like what do you mean you give us money," added Leach. "They said, 'Yeah we know how difficult it is raising a kid with Down syndrome and so we try to help where we can.'"
The association now has more than 1,500 individuals and families involved across southeast Georgia and northeast Florida.
"She went from about 4 hours a day to 23 hours a day working," laughed Leach.
"We try to find programs and services that we would want for all of our typical children," said Revels.
It’s the only agency across the First Coast assisting families of those with Down syndrome from prenatal diagnosis throughout adulthood.
"She’s somebody who just cares so much about the community above herself," added Leach.
"Those brand new babies definitely help motivate me," smiled Revels. "I’m watching the families and I see the fear they have in their eyes. I know that fear as a mom. I know the feeling of uncertainty. So what inspires me is when I can sit down with them and say this is who we are, this is what your journey is going to be like, and this is what the DSAJ offers."
"You don’t have a choice with Revels," commented Leach. "Her passion her excitement, it’s just infectious. She rally’s people, she motivates people. There’s a culture at DSAJ, it’s a get it done culture. Let’s come up with an idea and let’s figure out how we do it and we just do. And she’s the reason."
And THAT is why Revels is one of FCN's 12 Who Care Honorees. Thank you for your service, Revels. Thank you for making the First Coast a better place to live every day.