Adorable Lucas Warren made history last week by becoming the first “Gerber Baby” with Down Syndrome in the company’s 91-year history. The 18-month-old from Georgia was chosen from a pool of 140,000 babies who entered the contest, and his parents, Jason and Cortney Warren, say they were shocked by the news.
“It’s almost like a dream,” Cortney Warren, from Dalton, Georgia, tells PEOPLE. “I think it takes a minute to really set in, like, this is real.”
Since then, the couple has received thousands of messages on social media—they say they’re still getting used to all of the attention.
“It’s very humbling,” Jason Warren says. “Who knew our child was going to touch so many people and make that many people smile. We’re loving what everybody is saying about our little boy. Lucas is loving it—he’s loving all these new people he gets to wave at.”
Gerber first launched their initiative soon after its founding in 1927, and they brought the contest online in 2010. Lucas will be featured in many of the company’s social media posts going forward, and with his selection, the family claimed a $50,000 cash prize.
Cortney says she entered Lucas into the contest on a whim at her son’s godmother’s urging. While Lucas is definitely soaking up his time in the spotlight, his parents say Lucas is not much different than any other toddler.
“He’s pretty much like every child around this age, loves learning, loves to laugh, loves to make other people laugh, always waving and smiling at everyone,” she says. “He loves it when complete strangers wave and smile back at him. It makes his day.”
The winning photo of Lucas, which features him in a polka dot bowtie and green button-up shirt, was snapped after his first Sunday at church.
“We got back home,” Courtney remembers, “and I thought he looked so adorable in the outfit and I just decided to snap a quick picture of it.”
The couple, who have been together eight years and married for five, says they quickly had to pick up on all of the intricacies that come with raising a child with disabilities.
“It’s amazing raising a child with special needs, and it might seem like it’s rough at the beginning, but it gets better,” Jason says. “We didn’t anything about how to raise a child with special needs. We had to learn everything from scratch.”
Cortney adds that one of the main things they had to learn was what Lucas’s medical needs would entail, which could include special educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and social workers. People with Down syndrome are at greater risk for health problems and may need surgeries to correct physical defects, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Shortly after Lucas was announced as the new Gerber Baby, many on social media began posting about their own experiences, which included their children with Down syndrome being allegedly rejected for life insurance coverage by Gerber’s insurance company, Gerber Life (also owned by Nestlé).
Many criticized the company for seemingly using Lucas for promotional purposes.
Though the couple didn’t comment on the backlash, a Nestlé spokesperson sent a response to PEOPLE.
“Gerber Life issues policies that consider each child’s unique situation. While every case is different, this includes issuing some policies that cover children with disabilities, including children with Down syndrome,” the statement reads. “As with all life insurance policies, each application is evaluated thoroughly and acceptance is made on an individual basis.”
Regardless of the controversy, Jason and Cortney hope they will be able to use the added attention around Lucas to raise awareness for the 6,000 babies born with Down syndrome every year in the United States. The couple hopes Lucas can bring hope to other families who may feel anxious or afraid when finding out their child has Down syndrome or another disability.
“There are a lot of families out there who’ve become frightened or afraid because they don’t know,” Jason says. “We’re hoping they can see Lucas and just get a glimpse of what all their child can do.”