Rita Keegan and granddaughter Emma

By Jamie Christensen |  Submitted Photos

From the Kardashians to The Real Housewives, there is no shortage of “reality TV” to choose from. For some local families,  an Emmy-winning reality show has captured their hearts, minds, and dreams for the future.

“Born this Way,” from the A&E Network, offers insight into the world of individuals with Down syndrome and their families as they explore options and work their way to independence. Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.

The reality show is in its third season and some North Dakota families are huge fans; even calling themselves “Born This Way” junkies. For a junkie, meeting one of the show’s stars might seem like only a dream. But it’s real. Rita Keegan is one fan getting to meet Rachel Osterbach and Steven Clark, stars of “Born This Way,” along with the actor’s mothers.

“I’m just a junkie,” says Rita Keegan, grandmother to seven-month-old Emma. “I am all caught up with the previous seasons. In my generation, there was no inclusion—the awareness was not there. I want to learn everything I can.”

To see the real-life questions, challenges, celebrations, and life lessons of people with Down syndrome and their families played out on a global stage is a giant step forward in the world of disabilities. It creates necessary awareness and dialogue, but it is a lot to digest for some as well, especially in the beginning.

“I was filled with mixed emotions, tears,” says Jen Schafer, mom to six-year-old Brody. “Like, should I watch this show or not? I had a hard time with the first few episodes, wondering, ‘Is this what life is going to look like for my child?’”

The “Born this Way” junkies interviewed for this story love how the show breaks down old stereotypes. For example, episode one of the first season throws the “eternal children” stereotype out the window. Cast member Rachel says that she wants to see the movie “Ted 2.” Someone asks if she can watch that one since it’s rated R and has a lot of vulgarity, and her responses is, “Well, I’m over 30.”

This season really highlights just how different each of the individuals is. Although there are some similarities with Down syndrome, having the extra chromosome 21 truly does affect people differently.

“The people on the show inspire us to dream big,” says Brenda Amundson, mother of 17-year-old Carly. “I see these young adults thriving, having opportunities I never thought my daughter would have. It reminds me that she has the same dreams and aspirations. With transitioning into adulthood, some of those realities are hard. I am reminded that with modifications, Carly can fit in anywhere.”

“It’s getting the word out there that our kids can do a lot more,” says Tricia Volk, mother to four-year-old Ava. “Today with technology, therapy, empowerment, advocates—the time is now to have your voice heard, and it’s really inspiring.”

All of the “Born this Way” junkies have questions for the stars—questions about conflict, connecting to opportunities, staying brave as these young adults with special needs take on the world—allowing dignity in a world of inherent risk, and much more.

The local junkies say that from season one to today there is genuine growth in all the cast members, the individuals with Down syndrome along with their parents and families. And for them, it doesn’t get more real than that.

“Yes, they have a reality show. But their story is exactly our story,” says Jen. “They went through exactly what we’re going through.”
Tricia, Rita, Jen, and Brenda agree that there is so much to be learned and gained from each other, both in the local disability community, and beyond. And that is why, at least for these four “Born This Way” junkies, meeting Rachel and Steven, and their moms, is a dream come true.   

To hear more from these women click here.


Jamie Christensen

Jamie Christensen

Jamie is a full-time Realtor®, wife, and mom of three. She spends most of her time in the car for work and playing taxi to her children, and watches very little TV—although writing this story has inspired her to check out Born This Way!