Just about everybody in Ethete knows Owen St. Clair Jr. His friends just call him OE (“Owie”). Now, after a whirlwind weekend to New York City, the whole nation knows this First Nation rockstar.
Like his dad, and his dad before him, OE is born and raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation, an enrolled member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming.
OE was also born with an extra chromosome, but that’s not all the 21-year-old has in abundance.
Trisomy 21 is the genetic condition of being born with three copies of chromosome 21 in each cell instead of the usual two copies. Outside of the world of lab coats, it’s better known as Down syndrome.
OE’s parents — Owen St. Clair and Shelly Trosper — have never seen their son use it as an excuse.
“It’s never detracted from him doing what he wanted to do. Not once. He puts his whole heart into everything he does,” St. Clair said. “Owen is inspiration to a lot of kids.”
For years, the longtime school administrator was principal at Wyoming Indian Elementary Schools. He would often use his son as the highest bar — an example of what a typical 9-year-old, for instance, should be capable of.
“Disability or not, you should strive to have the same level of conduct that Owen has,” his father said. “There’s not a mean bone in his body. I wish there were more people like him in the world.”
Mom Shelly, who works as a paraprofessional in Fremont County School District 14, agreed.
“And what is really amazing about him is he does not hold a grudge. He is so forgiving to everyone, even classmates who might be mean to him,” she said. “I have to admit, I often find it hard to be that way.”
Off The Reservation
In March, Shelly submitted a photo of her son to the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) for the 2023 Buddy Walk in New York City. If chosen, the picture would be displayed as part of a one-hour video segment featured on two Jumbotron screens in the heart of Times Square on the morning of Sept. 9.
Since 1995, the National Buddy Walk Program has been the premier Down syndrome awareness, advocacy and peer-to-peer fundraising program in the world. Roughly 150 simultaneous events take place around the globe with the flagship program being the one in NYC.
Shelly sent in OE’s senior picture taken a couple of years ago by Lehman Studio in Riverton. It shows Owen Jr. decked out in his Chiefs basketball uniform and wearing his grandfather Darwin’s ceremonial warbonnet.
“We decided to send in something that showcased our culture,” Trosper said.
The collective images in the one-hour presentation showed various people with Down syndrome from across the country. In many of the shots, subjects chose to show off their uniqueness by highlighting their disability instead of hiding it. A couple of T-shirts in particular summed up the “can-do” spirit:
“Don’t Dis My Ability” and “My Ability is Stronger than My Disability.”
Powerful, yes, but none seemed to reverberate like OE’s photo in uniform and full headdress. The image simply screams “Proud.”
‘You Have To Go’
“I submitted it and just forgot about it,” Trosper said.
Then on Aug. 22, Shelly received an email from NDSS saying that the photo of OE was selected from more than 2,400 to be one of the 500 that would appear in Times Square during the Buddy Walk event.
She and her husband Owen were overjoyed at the news, but had no plans to actually go to New York.
“I thought we would just watch it on the laptop when it went live on Facebook,” Trosper said.
“I figured we would just do the Buddy Walk in Lander,” added St. Clair.
But Shelly’s best friend, Jenn Runs Close To Lodge, had other ideas.
“You have to go,” she said. “And I will help.”
Runs Close To Lodge organized a spotfund online campaign to help raise more than $5,000 to send OE and his mom to the Big Apple last weekend. With only about two and a half weeks to book flights and hotel rooms, the dream was somehow realized.
“For two weeks, whenever we were out like at the grocery store or something, people would come up to us and say, ‘Is this the young man trying to get to New York?’ They said they didn’t trust giving on the internet or didn’t know how to do it so they would just hand me a $20 or something,” Trosper said.
“We can’t express how grateful we are for this community and their support,” OE’s parents said.
Times Square Squire
Pregnant with Owen Jr. in 2001, it was extra special to be in New York City just days prior to 9/11. The big takeaway from their first trip ever to the Big Apple, however, was the pace and the heat.
“It certainly is fast,” Trosper said of big city life.
“I'm too hot,” complained OE.
“The humidity was killing him,” Trosper said.
Too hot to even go wife-shopping.
OE’s mom reminded her son of something he told her not long ago. After landing a job as a busboy in Morning Star restaurant at Little Wind Casino, OE figured he was ready to start adulting.
“Now that I have a job, I guess I’m ready for a wife,” he told his mom.
Trosper suggested maybe he should look around a little while he was in New York.
“He’s so social, I figured it shouldn’t take long,” Trosper said.
But when pushed to mingle, OE said it was “too hot to find a wife.”
Back in the Wind River community, OE struts his stuff with a big city swagger now. But he’s no more famous than before he left. Ask anyone in Ethete, Fort Washakie, Arapaho or Riverton.
But no matter who you ask, they’ll tell you the same thing: OE is legit.