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‘One of the guys’ at UK fraternity is 1st with Down Syndrome

By LINDA BLACKFORDDecember 31, 2018
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Josh Banks, left, high-fives chapter president Ben Bohannon, right, as Banks shot pool at the University of Kentucky's Farmhouse Fraternity on Rose Lane on Nov. 11, 2018. Farmhouse became the first fraternity at UK to accept a student with Down syndrome when Josh Banks was invited to become a member. Fraternity member Brack Duncan started visiting with Josh Banks through a program, then they became friends. While not a UK student, Josh spends a lot of time at the fraternity and on campus. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
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Josh Banks, left, high-fives chapter president Ben Bohannon, right, as Banks shot pool at the University of Kentucky's Farmhouse Fraternity on Rose Lane on Nov. 11, 2018. Farmhouse became the first fraternity at UK to accept a student with Down syndrome when Josh Banks was invited to become a member. Fraternity member Brack Duncan started visiting with Josh Banks through a program, then they became friends. While not a UK student, Josh spends a lot of time at the fraternity and on campus. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Friday is cleanup day at the University of Kentucky’s FarmHouse Fraternity on Rose Lane, and the place hummed with vacuum cleaners overlaid on the dulcet tones of Lynyrd Skynryd and the occasional ‘thwack’ of a pool ball.

Having finished his duties, fraternity member Josh Banks was playing pool in the big TV room. It’s his favorite thing to do in his favorite place to be, at the fraternity with his friends and brothers. For FarmHouse, it was a typical day. For fraternity life in the United States, it was anything but.

Banks, after all, is 33 and has Down Syndrome. He was inducted earlier this year as an associate member. FarmHouse members say it’s the first time in UK history, and maybe even in the country, that a person with Down Syndrome has been inducted into a college fraternity. He is an “associate” because he doesn’t attend UK, but has all the other rights and privileges of a fraternity member.

President Ben Bohannon called the decision a no-brainer that the fraternity members agreed to without much discussion.

“He’s so happy here,” Bohannon said. “Josh is teaching us to be better people. You can’t be in a bad mood around him.”

The story starts several years earlier with a Winchester high school student named Brack Duncan. He started working with Banks at STRIDE, (Supporting Therapeutic Recreation for Individuals with Disabilities Everyday), a therapeutic recreation center. Duncan tutored Banks in reading and math, but the two started hanging out socially.

Duncan was a former competitive clogger, while Banks had danced on a special needs clogging team. Banks also enjoyed driving in trucks, going out to eat and to the movies, and hanging out with Duncan and his friends.

When Duncan got to UK, he pledged FarmHouse, but Fridays were still devoted to Josh. He brought him to the house to hang out, where Banks was soon playing pool and asking for rides from anyone who owns a truck.

“He already saw himself as one of the guys, it was cool watching it all play out,” Duncan said.

This April, Banks and Duncan did a clogging performance at Kentucky’s Got Talent, a philanthropy event hosted by Delta Delta Delta. A video of the event went viral and led the pair to partner with Shop Local Kentucky — raising over $5,000 for Down Syndrome research.

Bohannon said the membership had nothing to do with good publicity, despite the reams of it the house has gotten at a time when, as Bohannon noted, “this semester at UK is not a good time to be in a frat.”

Just up the hill from FarmHouse, two fraternities currently sit empty because of various policy violations. In September, Sigma Chi was suspended for drug and alcohol violations. The same month, the national chapter of ATO suspended its UK charter when a two-year-old boy was killed after being struck by a car allegedly driven by an ATO pledge who was charged with a DUI.

Hazing deaths in recent years have reanimated a national conversation about Greek life on campuses, ranging from safety to the historically exclusionary nature of both fraternities and sororities.

The conversation about the inclusion of those with special needs has only just begun, particularly at George Mason University, after a student and cheerleader with Down Syndrome was rejected by all eight sororities on campus.

That might be why Banks’ membership has sparked so much conversation outside of FarmHouse but not inside it, Duncan speculated.

“I don’t think it’s a lot of change for us, but maybe for the public perception of Greek life,” Duncan said. “Maybe people will ask less questions about the social aspect and more about the service aspect because we’re showing people the impact. We want to show how to give people opportunities ... at the end of the day, the smallest choice can have really big impact.”

Banks himself has been less impressed with the hoopla. “These guys are my friends,” he said, as he continued to play pool.

Banks has met plenty of people outside FarmHouse, too, including Nima Mahmoodi, president of the UK Interfraternity Council.

“Josh brings a strong spirit of happiness and joy, not only to FarmHouse Fraternity but the University of Kentucky,” Mahmoodi said. “Josh is not only a brother of FarmHouse, but he too is a brother of our university.”

Duncan will graduate in the spring and plans on continuing in the nonprofit sector. But Fridays will continue to belong to Banks. By 5 p.m., it’s time to eat.

“Will, you want to go to Wendy’s with us?” Banks asked Will Flowers, another member, who happens to own a big white truck.

“Sure,” responded Flowers, not looking up from his phone.

The pool game ended, and Flowers, Duncan and Banks walked outside to Flowers’ truck, off to dinner, maybe a movie, maybe some basketball. Just another Friday at FarmHouse.

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com

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