My first day at work was the GiGi’s Chicagoland 5K Fun Run four years ago. It was held in a grassy field that was filled with mud from rain the night before. The families showed up in huge groups, all smiling, excited and happy to be there. Music was blasting, the energy was high, and no amount of mud and rain would put a damper on the spirits of everyone there. I knew then that my new career was going to be truly special.
I was drawn to GiGi’s because I wanted to find a career where I felt like I was making a positive impact in people’s lives. It doesn’t take long at GiGi’s to see how we really are changing the world, not just for individuals with Down syndrome, but for everyone who has ever struggled with acceptance. What I did not expect is how much working at GiGi’s would change me. Here are some of the things I learned in the past four years at GiGi’s Playhouse.
To be patient. I’ve been witness to so many incredible achievements and #bestofall moments within the walls of the playhouse. Watching these kids and adults work so hard every day for their first word, first step, first job and more, reminds me to be patient. Our successes are not about how fast we can get there but that we accomplished something worthwhile in the end, and the journey to get there is part of that achievement.
To love with every bone in your body. Our kids and adults love without judgement or fear of getting hurt. One of my favorite couples Brian and Christine are the best cheerleaders for each other. Every chance they get to brag about their partner, they take, and beam with pride. When we find someone we love we should celebrate that and tell them every chance we get. PS. If my husband is reading this… I love you very much.
Smile whenever you can. You have the power to impact a person’s day simply by smiling at them. Work can be difficult, stressful and overwhelming at times, but every day a participant walks in the doors of the playhouse with a smile on their face it changes everything. The playhouse is their happy place, its an atmosphere of positivity and possibility. A simple smile a day is a reminder why we work so hard.
Be strong. Strength is more than how much you can lift or the size of your muscles. The strength I get to witness at the playhouse daily is in the kids that continue to work hard even when it’s difficult. They come in after school and other therapies absolutely exhausted but still wanting to try their best. They come in after being in the hospital and facing other setbacks ready to get back to work. Their strength is humbling and inspiring and a reminder that we can always push ourselves just a little bit harder.
Be more thoughtful. One of the first people I was fortunate enough to meet when I started at GiGi’s was an incredible adult named Chris. Chris proudly gave me my first tour of the playhouse and showed me his job responsibilities. It was clear he was a leader and mentor to his peers, and rightfully so. Chris inspires me in so many ways but his thoughtfulness will always be something I aspire to. Chris is the first person to remember your birthday even before Facebook sends the reminder, he makes sure everybody around him is taken care of, steps up to help before being asked. He is always there looking out for people. I remember when Chris and I were working on a project a while back and I asked him to create some artwork for me, he happily obliged and brought it to me the next day. His artwork was perfect and mostly pink and when I asked him about it he said the pink was for his mom who passed away from breast cancer. I soon learned a lot of the art he created would have that nod to his mom and would make it personal and special to anyone who would receive a gift with that on it. He puts his whole heart into everything he does. Chris is the most compassionate and thoughtful friend I have ever had and I continue to learn from him any chance I get.
While working at GiGi’s these past four years, I got married and had my first child. Recently I made the change from working at the National Office to becoming the Site Coordinator at our brand-new Deerfield location. While it was a difficult decision to not see the coworkers turned friends that I had worked every day for years, I knew there was more that I had to offer. Being able to connect directly with families on a day to day basis has refueled my passion for our mission. These families and participants are the strongest and most incredible people I have ever met. I love knowing that my daughter will grow up and be a part of the playhouse, my friends with Down syndrome will be her friends too and she will be a better person because of that. To be a part of GiGi’s is to be a part of change, change in yourself, change in the ones you love and ultimately change in the world.
~ Shannon Powell