Family Stories – Cesar and Renee

April is Autism Acceptance Month! This is a special month for us as some of our friends have an extra – extra amazing diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism is a lifelong neurodevelopmental diagnosis in which people with Autism perceive the world and interact with others in unique and beautiful ways. Though this diagnosis is often misunderstood, here at GiGi’s we cherish how our friends creatively problem-solve, communicate in a variety of ways, ask intentional questions, share what they are passionate about, achieve growth in every opportunity, and encourage others to see the world from their perspective.

This month, we are highlighting one of our incredible teens – Cesar! What is there not to love about Cesar? He comes to Teen Tastic with a song in his heart and a willingness to try new things. We have watched Cesar become his own self-advocate, while quietly leading others to follow in his footsteps. We invited Cesar and his mom, Renee, to share their story about GiGi’s and Autism. We promise you won’t regret taking the time to read through their story, as it is one of growth, resilience, and acceptance.

Cesar OWNING the stage during Teen Tastic’s karaoke night.

What brought you to GiGi’s Playhouse Cleveland?

We were at the ‘Light Up Lakewood’ parade in 2015. GiGi’s was not open to the public yet but awaiting the grand opening. A few board members were sitting out front serving hot chocolate to all in attendance that evening and they noticed Cesar looking through the windows in awe of the Playhouse. One board member approached us and we started talking about the Playhouse. At the time, Cesar could not verbally tell her he was eager to explore, but the board member could see in his demeanor how enthusiastic he was. She warmly invited us inside to take a look. As Cesar explored, I learned more about GiGi’s and got excited to become a part of the community. I then shared that Cesar had Autism Spectrum Disorder. Without hesitation, I was told, “Our community is here for anyone who needs our services. We are not just here for our friends with Down syndrome but for everyone. Cesar is more than welcome here.” From that day, Cesar has been a part of the GiGi’s family!

What programs is Cesar involved in?

Cesar participates in Teen Tastic and occasionally Project Pulse!

Tell us more about Cesar! What does he like? What are his favorite foods?

Cesar LOVES to collect Funko Pops, watch wrestling (WWE, NXT, AWW), and listen to music – specifically 80s music. He is such a picky eater, but his favorite foods are pizza and chicken with ranch and/or hot sauce.

What are other programs and supports that have helped your loved one grow and achieve?

Before Cesar started coming to GiGi’s, he participated in the sports camp with the Achievement Centers for Children. After he started coming to GiGi’s Playhouse, he actually came in contact again with friends from that program!

What is your favorite moment at GiGi’s Playhouse?

One of my favorite memories was during a Teen Tastic Luau party. The teens were playing games and one was a water balloon toss. There was a new participant in Teen Tastic who was shying away. Cesar went right up to him, called him by his name, and invited him to be his partner. It truly seemed like one of those “Hey, I have been in your place before and it’s okay, we are all friends here” moments. Cesar made the new friend comfortable and together they played the water balloon toss game.

What would you like people to know about Cesar and how can that change the community around us?

Cesar was non-verbal and didn’t engage with others much before going to GiGi’s. Cesar’s growth expanded and he is the person he is today because of GiGi’s Playhouse. From day one, Lizz has been a fantastic person and leader. The Playhouse truly deserves her. Erin (our Teen Tastic Lead), what can I say about her? We are all lucky she is around. I have cried with Erin and Brittney (program assistant) over how well they care for Cesar and how much he has opened up and grown because of their support. GiGi’s and their staff will forever have a special in our hearts. Everyone has allowed Cesar to be himself and they actively encourage that every time he is at the Playhouse.

What is one of your proudest moments with Cesar?

Every day I am proud of him. Cesar faces challenges and obstacles daily, but we are on this journey together. Something that may be easy for us, like a routine change, can alter his behavior because it’s not as easy for him. However, Cesar has learned to cope and put his tools to use. For that, I am so proud of him for making it through whatever life throws at him.

What is one fear you might have had early on, but has now been eliminated?

Not fitting in with society. I was worried that Cesar would be secluded in his own little world. He sees things differently through his own perspective, but Cesar is loved by so many. He is well-known around both Lakewood and Bay Village communities. It never seems to fail, but he can walk into any store or place and at least one person recognizes him and says hi. My ultimate fear, just like most parents, is if he can live without me. What is going to happen to him when I’m gone? Well, that’s what we work on every day – to make him as independent as possible. The staff, volunteers, and participants at GiGi’s Playhouse continue to play a huge role in that process.

How do you prefer people approach you when they are curious about your loved one?

Just ask! I take every opportunity as a teachable moment!

What has Cesar taught you?

Patience. That was something I lacked until Cesar came into my life. He also showed me to look at things differently. The world is a different, but beautiful place, from someone else’s perspective.

What have you learned by being your loved one’s advocate?

Patience is a virtue and every moment is a teachable moment to those unfamiliar with our journey. Instead of trying to fit him into our world, let’s try to live in his.

If there is one thing other families can take away from your story, what would it be?

Be hopeful and positive. Let your child be who they are meant to be, but push them out of their comfort zone. We are only here to guide them. It is our journey, but it is their life.

Cesar ROCKING out during a game of charades at Teen Tastic.

If you are interested in sharing your story, please email our Operations Manager, Mary at: mmakulinski@gigisplayhouse.org

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