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Lucas Warren, 18 months, won a photo contest by Gerber, the baby food company. He beat 140,000 other entrants and will appear in the company's social media ad campaign.
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Cortney and Jason Warren with their son, Lucas.
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Cortney, Jason and Lucas Warren at the Buddy Walk, a celebration held by the Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society.

Two hours after Lucas Warren was born at Parkridge East Hospital, a pediatrician peppered his parents with questions about family backgrounds, about why their baby might look a little different than expected.

Lucas might have Down syndrome, the doctor explained. A blood test was administered. Two weeks later, in an office in Dalton, Ga., Cortney and Jason Warren learned his hunch was right.

They didn't know much about Down syndrome. Some friends had relatives with the condition; that was about it. Cortney Warren feared how Lucas would fit in as he got older.

"How would he be treated?" she wondered. "How would things be more difficult for him?"

"There's a negative outlook on people with special needs," Jason Warren said, "whether anybody wants to admit it or not."

They soon learned to treat Lucas, now 18 months old, like any other baby. His natural joy relieved them. His smile changed them.

It's a big, abandon-everything kind of smile. Mouth open, tongue creeping out. Dimples pressed into chubby cheeks.

Last year, the Warrens sent a picture of Lucas in a bow tie and mint button down to Gerber, the baby food company. The company holds a photo search annually, trying to somehow name the cutest baby. In December, the Warrens got a package in the mail from The Gerber Products Co., telling them Lucas beat about 140,000 of his crawling and crying and hiccuping peers.

On Wednesday, Gerber publicly announced the winner on The Today Show. He is the company's first winner with Down syndrome.

"Lucas' winning smile and joyful expression won our hearts," Gerber CEO Bill Partyka said in a statement.

Lucas will appear on the company's social media page, and perhaps in some other advertising campaigns. The Warrens, meanwhile, get $50,000.

Born and raised in Ringgold, Ga., Cortney and Jason moved to Dalton two years ago. She stays at home with Lucas during the day while Jason hauls filler and crushed rock to carpet mills and concrete companies. He is also a helicopter mechanic for the Army National Guard.

The Warrens actively participate with the Chattanooga Down Syndrome Society. Latricia Milburn, a spokeswoman for the organization, said the family attended last year's Buddy Walk, a celebration for people with Down syndrome. They also attended the Dash for DS, a 5K run to celebrate World Down Syndrome Awareness Day.

Carmen Penney, the president of the society, said Gerber's decision is momentous within the community. The Warrens are now sharing their baby with the world.

"My hope is that it causes people to become more aware," Penney wrote in an email. "To understand that having Down syndrome is just part of the individual (like hair or eye color), that it doesn't define the person."

Cortney Warren also believes Gerber's decision could affect families around the country.

"We hope Lucas becomes a role model," she said, "a beacon of light to show them what can be done. Their life is not different. They can do what they want."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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