After Patricia Ehrle learned years ago that her son, Craig Blackburn, was diagnosed with Down syndrome, she had one wish above all others.
“That every day he would live his life, he would be the best he can be,” Ehrle said. “And I can honestly say, as a mom, Craig lives every single day being the best person he can be.”
As it turns out, Craig’s best has produced plenty of accomplishment, and this year he’s shown absolutely zero signs of slowing down. Recently, Blackburn was awarded the Volunteer Louisiana Champion of Service Award for the Greater New Orleans area, an honor bestowed on him in recognition of his devotion to volunteerism in his community. Blackburn regularly volunteers at East Jefferson General Hospital and at GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center where he and Ehrle teach fitness classes.
That isn’t all. Blackburn, 40 and of Luling, also recently returned from the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Fla., where he and fellow St. Charles Parish resident Oneil Legendre completed on Team Louisiana’s basketball squad. Blackburn was also chosen to lead Louisiana’s athletes in the USA Games’ Opening Ceremony and was featured in a story segment during ESPN2’s coverage of the event.
And earlier this year, Blackburn competed in – and completed – the Crescent City Classic, wearing the number 321 on his running bib. Runner 321 is an initiative by Adidas which asks running events to hold that number for an athlete to represent the Down Syndrome community.
All of these milestones stand as testament to who Blackburn is.
His volunteerism comes from a desire within him to see others thrive, Ehrle said.
“He really cares for other people,” Ehrle said. “He wants to give back … that makes him truly happy. He’s so pleased to see people succeed.”
The exercises he and Ehrle teach at GiGi’s – where several programs are in place to help those with Down syndrome battle through their personal obstacles to reach their potential – were created by a physical therapist specifically with individuals with Down syndrome in mind and are aimed at helping create a greater quality of life.
It’s among the avenues Blackburn shines brightest, Ehrle said, because he is a people person at heart.
“Craig wants to give back to the community … he’s been given a lot in his life, and he appreciates all of it,” Ehrle said. “He wants to be out there, being active and doing things all the time. And he wants to be around others. The places he volunteers … the hospital where he gets to interact with the staff, and GiGi’s where we get to interact with other individuals with Down syndrome, those places and those people have been amazing.”
The Louisiana Volunteer Service Award recognizes groups and individuals who serve with distinction and demonstrate excellence. Volunteers who have contributed 150 or more hours of service in a calendar year can receive this award along with a volunteer service lapel pin.
The Crescent City Classic was a different kind of challenge for Blackburn. While he’s very active in athletics, he wasn’t a runner, Ehrle said.
“A friend of ours who has a son that is 3-years-old with Down syndrome approached us and said they’d really like Craig to run at the Classic, and to wear the 321,” Ehrle said. “There are five brothers in the family who all run regularly, and they said one could work with Craig … Craig had never run more than one mile, and for this he’d have to run 6.2.”
Thus, Chris Heine trained Blackburn for the marathon. They started by running three quarters of a mile, then walking a quarter mile, then repeating the process to build Blackburn’s stamina. Over the 2.5 weeks prior to race day, Blackburn trained hard, and he was able to achieve his goal. He dedicated the race to his wife Heather, who was recovering from a battle with COVID-19.
The USA Games proved a great experience for him as well.
“They treated the athletes like royalty,” Ehrle said. “I can’t say enough about the job they did.”