Alex and Addie Kearns sit next to each other at a Lewis Center coffee shop.
The siblings -- Alex is a freshman at Olentangy Berlin High School; Addie an eighth-grader at Hyatts Middle School -- share gaming results and videos on a smartphone. They needle each other, resulting in laughter and gentle shoves, and politely ask their mom, Jen Franklin Kearns, if they can go back and pick up their orders at the counter.
Not much to indicate, on the surface anyway, that the pair are budding filmmakers and powerhouse advocates for individuals living with Down syndrome.
Alex is a 2019 Ambassador for Nothing Down, a Down syndrome awareness organization with an international presence. He also recently participated in his 16th Columbus Buddy Walk, during which time Team Alex has raised more than $100,000 for the Down Syndrome Association of Central Ohio and the National Down Syndrome Society.
Addie has joined her family in advocating for Down syndrome awareness, raising more than $10,000 over the past three years through a variety of efforts. She has been named a Student of the Year at Hyatts Middle School and an Outstanding Peer Mentor by the Delaware County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
"Advocacy is just a part of who we are as a family," Jen Kearns said.
But that advocacy did not come naturally, she said.
"I consider myself an introvert," Kearns said. "We learned that Alex had Down syndrome when he was born. Over time, we just found ourselves getting into situations where someone had to speak up."
Alex deals most naturally with the attention that comes with advocacy, she said.
In addition to participating in events, Alex has been featured in a variety of ways, from being recognized on stage to singing with the Berlin High School choir at the 2019 Buddy Walk.
He's also no shrinking violet in school, where his favorite classes are choir and science -- "and lunch," he makes sure to add. In addition to singing in the choir, he was a member of the soccer team this fall and is an active participant in the student-section activities at football games.
"Alex knows a lot of people, and a lot of people know Alex," Kearns said. "He's becoming more of a self-advocate, having more of a say in speaking up and out for himself, and he's more and more getting used to that role."
Addie said taking on the mantle of advocate was something she "didn't think much about ... I just kind of did it."
From drawing and selling pictures when she was younger to the more engaged fundraising and advocacy she does as a middle schooler, Addie has seen her perspective grow as well.
"I just see Alex as my big brother who looks out for me, but it's always been normal to do the same for him," she said. "Now that I do think about what it means to be an advocate, I see how it helps and that it's not just something my family does. It makes me want to advocate for inclusion and kindness for everyone, not just Alex, and to do more for all who live with Down syndrome."
Addie's advocacy includes the direction and narration of a short film in which Alex is the star. "Not Me" was among the award-winners at the 2019 Hyatts Film Festival.
Kearns said she's watching the family's youngest, Andrew, begin to find a voice the way young Addie did.
"It's not difficult to be a family with someone who has a disability," she said. "It can be a lot of work, but it's important work."
She said advocacy begins locally, speaking up about creating inclusive opportunities and practices in schools and other places Alex engages on a daily basis.
Participating in larger efforts, such as fundraising or serving as a Nothing Down Ambassador, are important, she said, but there is work to be done closer to home to "make things better for kids in the future," Kearns said.
Something she advocates for strongly is that Alex and other individuals living with Down syndrome be given equal opportunity, but not special treatment, which can lead to experiences that lack authenticity.
"I just want Alex to have normal chances, normal experiences. Yes, he needs extra support, but I need extra support with some things, too," Kearns said.
Perhaps Alex's "normal" experiences will help land him a coveted spot at the WWE Performance Center -- yes, Alex someday would like to be a professional wrestling referee, he said.
Meantime, the Kearns family -- including dad Mark -- will share its story in whatever ways it can.
"It's really as simple as 'Here's Alex, here's what we're thinking for his future, and here's why you need to think about it,' " Kearns said.