— by Linda Shrieves

Faith-Christina Duncan is a beaming, glowing, 4-foot-8-inch bundle of positive energy, and is a graduate of Osceola County Schools and Valencia College!

She’s hard-working, happy, and determined to succeed. Yet, when Faith-Christina Duncan was born, doctors reluctantly told her parents that they were sorry to inform the couple that the baby had Down Syndrome.

Mike and Nancy-Carole Duncan didn’t blink. Instead, they embraced Faith-Christina and got to work – arranging appointments with neurologists, physical therapists, and cardiologists (who would be needed to repair the holes in her heart) to begin helping Faith-Christina overcome any obstacle that stood in her way.

And, boy, did they succeed.

Although her parents were told that she’d probably never earn a regular high school diploma – and couldn’t handle college — Faith-Christina Duncan, 23, graduated from Valencia College in December, with an Associate in Arts degree and a 3.79 GPA. She was also a finalist to be Valencia College’s Distinguished Graduate.

Now, after taking studying American Sign Language at Valencia College, she’s working for the local YMCA and starting to do sign-language interpretation for churches in her new community in Georgia and hopes to do ASL interpretation in other venues. She also wants to be a motivational speaker – and it’s easy to see why.

“All my life, people have looked at me and seen Down Syndrome,” she says. “I want them to look past the outside of a person who has a disability. Get to know them. Be their friend.”

It started with a family motto

When Faith-Christina and her older sister, Destiny-Ann, were young, the family had a motto that they relied on any time someone said Faith-Christina couldn’t do something.

“Duncans are Determined” became their mantra, and one that Faith-Christina used frequently – from the time she was in kindergarten through high school, when a guidance counselor warned Mike and Nancy-Carole Duncan that it might take Faith-Christina six years to graduate and that she’d probably only get a certificate of completion.

“This woman didn’t know me and my wife,” recalls Mike Duncan.

She had no idea that the Duncans had long ago turned their dining room into a physical therapy room, that they’d employed countless exercises to help her learn to walk, to build up strength to hold a pen or pencil. She had no idea that they’d changed every daily chore or bedtime routine into some kind of therapy – all with one goal: to help Faith-Christina become a productive citizen.

“If she got toys for Christmas, they had to have some therapy angle,” recalls Mike Duncan. “Everything we did was therapy, from the time she woke up from the time she went to bed… We’d play roll-over game — to get her to exercise her back muscles.”

What this guidance counselor didn’t know was this essential truth: Rather than feeling that they’d been dealt a blow, the Duncans felt blessed to have a child with Down Syndrome.

That is obvious to anyone who met them along their journey.

When the family moved to St. Cloud from Port Charlotte, Faith-Christina was in kindergarten.

And despite the fact that she was smaller than most of her classmates, there were no obvious differences. She didn’t have special ed classes and, other than physical therapy and some small accommodations along the way, she was no different than any other child.  When she moved on to Neptune Middle School, she quickly became known to the staff for her sunny personality, greeting every office staffer with a hello each morning.  There, she earned a nickname – the Mayor of Neptune Middle School – and worked with a teacher to start a Best Buddies chapter at the school.

By the time she was in high school, Faith-Christina was working at her local Chick-Fil-A, and volunteering with the Down Syndrome community of Central Florida. She began quilting and sewing gifts for Down Syndrome babies.

“I wanted to make an impact on new parents, so I started making baby blankets to put into the newborn baskets for parents of babies with Down Syndrome,” given to new parents by the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida. Today, those blankets have become a symbol of hope and inspiration. “I want them to say: ‘Look what your child can do. There is no limit to the possibilities.’ “

“When people tell me that I can’t do something because I’m different or because I have a disability, I look at them and tell them not to ‘dis’ my ability,” says Faith-Christina. “I can do the same things you can. I just like to do them my own way.”

College choice

Despite the odds and long hours she spent studying, Faith-Christina graduated from high school with a grade-point-average over 3.5. So, when it came time to think about college, the Duncans looked around at options and decided Valencia was the best fit for her.

They liked Valencia because their older daughter had started at Valencia — and they knew Faith-Christina wouldn’t get swallowed up by a huge campus. Plus, they had good friends who worked at Valencia’s Osceola Campus and could provide a good support system for her.  “And, the Valencia campus was within seven miles of our house,” Mike Duncan said. “It was a small campus and easier to maneuver and close enough that if something occurred, we could get her fairly quickly.”

As for Faith-Christina, she was nervous about starting college. “I didn’t know if I could do it,” she says. “But I have always loved school and I’ve learned to believe in yourself and have the determination to push through.”

Although she was a little intimidated at first to get her driver’s license, she soon began driving herself to campus. She navigated any challenges herself.

When the pandemic hit after her first semester, Faith-Christina decided to continue with her classes – just online. She spread her books and papers and laptop on the kitchen table and converted that to her classroom. “I’ve already been on campus,” she told her parents. “I know I can do it online.”

So when a professor urged her to drop a class, she stuck with the class – and considered it a challenge, vowed to work doubly hard – and passed the class.

Along the way, word about Faith-Christina began to spread, in her faith community and in the Down Syndrome community. Faith-Christina has been featured in Woman’s Day Magazine and was named Woman of the Year in “Orlando: The City’s Magazine.” She was also the subject of an inspirational video, which won a regional Emmy award in 2022.

Now, after graduating from Valencia College, she’s ready for her next chapter.
Challenge accepted!