In this photo, Sam Backstrom gathered with his immediate classmates, second graders in teacher Heidi Henkes’ room at Pelican Rapids Viking Elementary School.
All wearing “Samtastic” t-shirts to raise awareness of Down Syndrome, Pelican Rapids school staff and classmates
gathered in the gym for a photo.
Sam Backstrom is front-center, and in the spotlight, with Principal Derrick Nelson, as the school’s only kid with the
distinction of having Down Syndrome.
Left, the back of the 2019 edition of the annual “Samtastic” t-shirt, with proceeds going back to the school.

Popular t-shirt sends message that there’s nothing un-cool about ‘getting down’ with Sam Backstrom

“Up with Downs” is one of the slogans that promotes Down Syndrome awareness.  

Pelican Rapids students, families and school staff demonstrated the spirit, with an “Up with Sam” day around town. 

Sam Backstrom is currently the sole Down Syndrome student at Viking Elementary School.  

That special distinction also makes him one “Samtastic” dude.  

Or, a few decades ago, you could say that Sam is a “cool cat” who really knows how to “get down.”  

Sam’s popularity as a “big man on campus” (though only a little second-grader) was evident by the 250 blue, locally-made Down Syndrome awareness t-shirts  worn Oct. 11 in his honor, by fellow Pelican students and staff. 

 The front of the t-shirt: A Tyrannosaurus Rex image, with the text  “I am Samtastic, hear me roar.”

Back of the shirt: “Dinosaurs are scary. Down Syndrome isn’t…Team Samtastic 2019.”

Timing was perfect, as October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month. Public information on Down Syndrome has been crucial in not only vastly improving the lives of individuals and families with Down Syndrome–but also extending their lives. 

The month is intended to make people aware of the abilities and accomplishments of those with the genetic chromosome disorder. It’s not about celebrating disabilities, it’s about celebrating abilities.

Down syndrome is not a “disease” or “defect” and it does not require treatment, prevention or a cure. It’s simply something different–or special–that people like Sam possess. 

In fact, the Down Syndrome Month publicity literature makes it clear:  It is inappropriate to refer to fellows like Sam Backstrom as  “afflicted with” or “suffering from.” This is helpful information for the media, too, because those references are often used in news stories and broadcasts. 

There is a common misconception about “short lifespan” for Down Syndrome folks. 

Today the average lifespan is approximately 60 years. As recently as 1983, the average lifespan of a person with Down syndrome was only 25 years. 


The dramatic increase to 60 years is largely due to the end of the unhealthy  practice of “institutionalizing” people with Down Syndrome.

There’s nothing “institutional” about Sam’s environment at Viking elementary–other than the fact that the building is brick;  food service is large-scale; there’s a big gym; a large yard outside; and lots of people running around–similar to other “institutions.”  

But at Viking school, Sam is basically just one of the gang –except for one day of the year, when he is especially and exceptionally — “Samtastic.”

This is actually the eighth annual “Samtastic”  t-shirt. 

“It went from 11 shirts the first year, then to 50, to 75, and last year, I think we were at 211,” said Sam’s mother, Amanda Backstrom, who has made awareness an annual tradition at the school.  The first couple years, Amanda just used the opportunity to spread the word on Downs.  But after t-shirts became so popular, she decided to turn it into a fundraiser.  This year’s 250 shirts sold is a record. 

This year, proceeds from the t-shirts will be donated to the developmentally disabled physical education program at the Viking school, which is operated by Sheri O’Brien.  

“Our plan is to pick a local effort every year, and donate the proceeds to keep money local,” said Amanda.  Amanda is on staff at the Pelican Rapids High School, and her husband Kevin is with Lake Region Electric Cooperative in Pelican Rapids.