Why I Trek Through Construction Traffic Every Friday – Chereesca’s Gala Speech

My name is Chereesca Bejasa. It’s a big honor to share my story with you tonight. I’m the proud mom of Bodhi, whom many of you know, and if you don’t, then you must not know Jill Rabin. Seriously, Bodhi appears on her Instagram hundreds of times more than my own. If you don’t know her, she’s a Speech and language pathologist extraordinaire, and Bodhi’s number one champion. She’ll change your life.

So here’s our story. I was 14 weeks’ pregnant when we received Bodhi’s Trisomy 21 diagnosis. As first-time, overachiever parents, this news was devastating to us. [You see, we didn’t personally know anyone with Down syndrome, and we were already having a hard time wrapping our heads around how to raise ] We cried everyday for 2 weeks straight. We thought we would never again have a moment of pure joy without a cloud hanging over our heads; a despair and resignation that our son would struggle.

This news came in May, 2020, in the thick of the Covid lockdown. Through friends, we were put in contact with other parents of children with Down syndrome. I’ll never forget what the first parents we’d talked to said to us when we first spoke, “We are so excited for you!” they said. We were stunned. They added us to a Facebook group where another mom befriended me and insisted we meet. We met in a park and sat 10 feet away from each other (no joke). It was just the two of us that meeting without her son. She told me that she too was devastated when she got the prenatal diagnosis for her son. She was told about GiGi’s where, pre-covid, she was able to visit while pregnant. She said she was so confused that people were just casual, chatting, having fun, as though their lives weren’t totally shattered. And the kids were so cute! That helped her to understand that the grief was temporary. That day at the park, her son was 15 months old, and she was experiencing more joy than she believed she would if her son had been typical. All those hard-earned milestones meant so many celebrations and appreciation for the little things.

Right after that conversation, I looked up GiGi’s hoping for that same insight into what life would be like. It wasn’t until Bodhi was about 6 months old that GiGi’s had re-opened to in-person activities. We decided to attend a music and sign language class for ages 0-3 called LMNOP. Bodhi’s first LMNOP class was also his first class of any kind, and his first time seeing other kids with Down syndrome. I wish I had pictures of that day. My little boy came alive! He was an A student with unwavering attention to Jill and the music, and smiling through the whole thing. After class I stayed to breastfeed Bodhi and Shannon Kerin took the opportunity to give me an overview of GiGi’s and get to know me and my son. We even got a goodie bag out of the deal. I was sold. I knew this place would be a good community for us.

The second time we went, my mother-in-law came along. The entire class she was moving around the room capturing pictures and video wearing the biggest smile I’d ever seen on her face. I’m surprised the kids weren’t distracted by all her chuckling. We capped off the day with a trip to the park and she said that was one of the best days of her life. Because of Covid, LMNOP was the only class atmosphere that Bodhi would be in for many months. He learned the mechanics of a classroom setting as well as to engage in music and language. Not many kids get an opportunity to do that at such a young age and it turns out this helps significantly in children’s development, especially those with Ds.

What I didn’t mention before is that we live in the city, pretty close to downtown, and yet, because of Jill Rabin, we come to the Deerfield GiGi’s . You see, when I was still pregnant, we called the preeminent lactation consultants of Chicago and once they learned our child had Down syndrome, they said we have to see Jill. She’s the best. Little did we know that Jill would also become Bodhi’s SPLT, would spearhead his EI eval to ensure that unlike most Chicago kids with needs, Bodhi would get proper therapies right away, and that she’d help us to hand pick our entire EI team.

So, in exchange, we trek it to Deerfield through the awful 94 construction traffic every Friday for LMNOP. Some days, I’m cursing under my breath the entire drive at the phenomenon of people who drive super slow in the left lane on 94. It really gets under my skin, but then we park and as soon as we turn toward the little corner alcove with the GiGi’s sign above, Bodhi starts waving and eliciting wows. I think some of you here know his wow! He loves this place and you can tell it has become another home for him. He knows all the songs and wants us to sing them to him all week long as he signs along. He signs about 50 words now, and understands many more. We are overjoyed by his linguistic progress, but the biggest gift that GiGi’s has given us are the friendships. Bodhi loves his friends Thiago, Owen, Rose, Sophia, Isaiah, Ezaiah, and Teddy.. You can see his admiration for the big kids as he quietly observes Conner, Gabby, Laney and the others who can walk, run, and do so much more. My first advice to new parents on this extra special journey is to connect to a GiGi’s. I tell them, “you will have support and resources with GiGi’s. You’ll even have fun. Eventually, you and your child will form bonds that turn into lifelong friendships, and that’s the best gift of all.”

GiGs Playhouse has made a huge impact on Bodhi’s life experience so far. It’s shaped him in lots of ways, while giving his family a sense of community and hope and we can’t thank you enough for that.

~ Chereesca Bejasa, Bodhi’s Mom

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