Paul Buonopane right, his wife, Stefani, and daughter Felicity reconnected with Paul’s Swampscott High classmate, and friend, Jonathan Derr. (Paul Halloran)

Swampscott alumni reconnect over daughter’s diagnosis

It seems like everybody knew and loved Jonathan Derr when he was a student at Swampscott High School, and Paul Buonopane was no exception. He would see Derr at football team dinners and he had friends who played on the golf team with him. Buonopane — and many others — couldn’t help but be impressed with the fact that Derr did not let Down syndrome slow him down even a little bit.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind I always respected and appreciated Jonathan,” said Buonopane, who didn’t expect to again cross paths with Derr in such a meaningful way.

That changed when Buonopane and his wife, Stefani (Danahy), received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome for their daughter, Felicity. As he processed the news and dealt with the accompanying range of emotions, Buonopane thought of his high school friend.

“I remember that in my optimistic moments, I would think about Jon and really how I knew him as a peer,” Buonopane said. “Jon is not only high functioning, he is high achieving.”

As the Buonopanes began to share the news with close friends, they kept hearing the same thing: You have to connect with Jo Ann Simons.

Simons, also a Swampscott resident, is Derr’s mother who happens to be the CEO of Northeast Arc. She immediately became a valued professional and personal resource.

“Jo Ann has been an inspiration,” Stefani Buonopane said. “A lot of friends suggested we contact her and she was there for us.”

Simons helped the family access services through Northeast Arc, coordinated by Ashley Lauranzano, including Early Intervention, physical therapy, speech therapy and a play group. More than that, she was able to speak to them as a parent of someone with Down syndrome — someone who is living a highly fulfilling and productive life.

Simons said she welcomed the opportunity.

“One of the great joys in my early career was talking to new parents (of Down syndrome children),” she said, “because the resources for parents didn’t exist. There was no Internet; parents had to rely on a word-of-mouth network.  Now there is an online community that parents are welcomed into by other parents.”

As plans for the Swampscott High Class of 1998’s 20th reunion were formalized, Buonopane let Simons know that he would be going and he would be happy to take his friend, Jonathan, with him. Prior to the reunion, which was held in Salem Saturday night, Derr got to meet Felicity and have some photos taken with her and her parents. It was one of those heartwarming moments that words fail to do justice, and the Buonopanes weren’t the only beaming parents in the room.

“I kept hearing about Stef and Paul, and when I figured out Paul was a high school classmate of Jonathan, it became much more poignant for me,” Simons said. “Jonathan was the only person with an obvious disability at Swampscott High at the time, so I hope his presence put a face and a person behind the diagnosis. Paul and Stefani have surrounded Felicity with such incredible support and love.”

“Felicity is pure happiness,” Stefani said. “She brightens every place she enters with a smile, a wave, and a clap. She amazes us every day and we are so proud of her, already.  We celebrate her Down syndrome and any challenges we have or will face are overshadowed by her joy and strength.”

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