on the ice

Dear Friends,

one-the-iceWhat’s a little kid sliding around on the ice got to do with disability?  Or GiGi’s Playhouse?

For once I won’t apologize for how the weather stations here in Connecticut exaggerate forecasts.  After all, I lived in Centerville, South Dakota for 5 years. Compared to that, our local reports are embarrassing.  But this past Valentine’s Day the temperature actually dipped to a frigid -10 degrees, and for the first time this winter season the ponds froze over solid.  My grandson Louis and I were off on another adventure.

Some may recall that Louis (Louie) lives in Brooklyn, not exactly the ice skating capital of the world.  There is an outdoor rink though,  in nearby Prospect Park, but at age seven, Louis isn’t that interested in learning to skate. This cold and clear afternoon found the two of us over at Woods Pond.  I wore snow boots and pushed him around the ice in a sledding disc.  A broom actually worked better than the hockey stick I brought.

There’s a big difference between a frozen pond and a skating rink.  At the rink you conform to your environment, everyone is on skates, everyone is going in the same direction.  Our skating pond is anything but conforming — it’s freedom of expression!  There is a hubbub of activity.  Some skaters twirl gracefully on figure skates.  The teenagers set up a make-shift hockey rink.  Little ones weave in and out, holding on to the saplings growing through the ice at the pond’s edges.  There’s something to be said for security when learning to stand on a slippery surface. A beginner struggles and gets back up under a watchful eye.

Others aren’t worried about falling.  They run and slide in their heavy winter clothing, land on their butts and do it all over again.  Parents sit on log seats at the campfire, conversations interrupted for a quick lace tightening or a cup of hot chocolate.

Forty-six years ago, my younger brother Dan would have added another dimension.  He was the imposing figure on racing skates, gliding effortlessly in lunging rhythmic strides around the pond perimeter.  At twenty-three, he was a policeman, an avid outdoorsman and a horseman.  But that summer, in the sudden split second of a trick riding session gone wrong, he became a quadriplegic.

A broken neck.  First cervical broken in half, the second fragmented into fifteen pieces.  He was immediately presented with a life-shattering list of wasn’t”s.  He wasn’t expected to regain his breathing capacity, wasn’t supposed to live.  He wasn’t supposed to move, to stand, to walk.  He wasn’t supposed to live a normal life, to drive his truck or successfully run a horse tack business for forty years.  He wasn’t supposed to become the New England Morgan Horse Association driving champion, or train others to become champions.  He wasn’t supposed to —- but he did!


After nearly a year and a half of rehab, Dan came home.  It was the dead of winter.  The ponds were frozen over again, and we were going skating – Dan, too!  I cut the legs off an old wooden chair and fastened it onto the long Flexible Flyer sled; then I improvised skis, polished them with candle wax for speed, and attached them to six-foot outriggers.  We got to the pond and placed the contraption on the ice.

People gathered in anticipation as we strapped Dan securely in, snuggly wrapped as if in a cocoon.  I tugged on the long rope while others gave a starting push.  Soon the centrifugal force of a circle gained momentum.  At his say so, I let go.

Across the glistening glaze of Woods Pond he sped.  Unfettered, twirling, twisting, gliding – transfixed in a world free of the bonds that held him captive.  This was my brother at his best – screaming, smiling, laughing.  Doing what he had always done – relishing life!

Free from bonds!  Relishing life!  It’s part of the mission of GiGi’s Playhouse. The Playhouse is much like the skating pond.  We live in a diverse world.  Though we share a commonality in Down syndrome, we are not bound by it’s restraints.  As advocates we are the trusted believers, outriggers of sorts, who assist in building quality of life.

None of us can predict the future.  And yes, at GiGi’s we also know a lot about the wasn’t”s, but we enthusiastically embrace the “can be”, projecting possibility and reaffirming the individual.  By being the best we can be we help others – to be.

When I visit Playhouses I am always inspired by our families, especially the getting back up attitude.  Each day we are surrounded by miracles, those who lift themselves up for us to see.  Louis and my brother Dan are two of them.  And every day we have a new opportunity to make a difference, to share in the miracles.

On that cold Valentine’s Day, the other kids didn’t see Louis as a person with Down syndrome.  He was having a ball, twisting and spinning in the disc.  They wanted a turn too.

GiGi's Playhouse

Have you been waiting to take a turn?  Don’t know how?  What have I got to offer?  Make the call  today or visit your local Playhouse.  We want you to come in, sit side by side and let’s talk.  Become a volunteer!  Get out on the ice and join in the thrill.  Welcome to GiGi’s Playhouse!

Richard Reilly

The Grandparent Connection

Inspiration from the Grandparent Connection

We are humbled to share a blog post called “Muscle and Momentum” from Richard Reilly – known as “Poppy” to his grandson Louis – and appreciated as both a generous friend and trusted adviser to GiGi’s Playhouse. Richard’s eloquence and passion are truly incredible, and we are excited to begin sharing monthly blog posts from… Continue Reading

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