Board Member Spotlight: Jeff Harper

GiGi’s Playhouse is so much more than a global nonprofit or marketing brand. Each location began with a grassroots team of dreamers and believers, who cultivated a local Down Syndrome Achievement Center with incredible heart and personality. This would not be possible without the dedication and generosity of many people involved on every single level. The person we’re featuring today played a critical role in bringing our Playhouse to fruition as one of the founding members of our board.

Meet Jeff Harper, husband to Kim, father to Katie and Grant, Engineer, co-inventor on 2 U.S. patents, and… self-identified rollercoaster enthusiast! While Jeff may enjoy the thrill of going up & down on wild rides, something that never wavers is his commitment to our Playhouse. He helps out in large and small ways, from promoting our programs on social media, to talking us up to his coworkers, resulting in many generous grants sent our way. We will never tire of his ‘dad jokes’ at board meetings, as we are so much stronger with his support! 

Please take a moment to get to know him more below! 

Hi Jeff, what is your daytime occupation and where?   

I am a Principal Application Engineer for MathWorks, working out of Novi, Michigan. I help customers of MathWorks with using our products, often for developing embedded software for automotive applications. 

What are some of your favorite hobbies and interests?   

My favorite hobby is riding rollercoasters. I’ve been on more than 1,000 different rollercoasters in more than 250 different amusement parks. I also enjoy Detroit Tigers baseball games, Michigan State athletics, and humorous movies. 

What’s a fun fact about you that might surprise us?  

I spent four summers in college working as a Weight Guesser at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. 

Will you tell us about your connection to Down syndrome?

My son, Grant, was born 12 years ago, 6 weeks early, and diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth. The way the news was delivered, and how the nurses responded, gave us the message that we should be sad. However, Grant is a great joy in our lives and we quickly discovered that Down syndrome is not a reason for sorrow, but a reason to celebrate!

When did you first get involved with GiGi’s Playhouse?   

I attended an introductory meeting held by Lisa Kocab, discussing what GiGi’s Playhouse was all about and her involvement at the Milwaukee location. I signed up on the spot in order to help make a Detroit location become a reality.   

What is your specific role on the board, and what is your “WHY”? In other words, what keeps you volunteering your time, year after year?   

I am part of the Strategic Planning committee and the Facilities/IT committee. I volunteer with GiGi’s Playhouse Detroit because its mission is aligned with my values. I wish to help all people become the best they can, and I want the world to see worth of all people, including those with Down syndrome. I’m very thankful for GiGi’s Playhouse, and it is an honor to be a part of such a great organization.

Do you participate in programs and/or events? If so, which ones?   

I have provided 1-on-1 Math Tutoring, in addition to bringing my son to Kids Club, Speech Therapy, and Math & Literacy Tutoring. I regularly participate in the fundraisers, including rappelling down the First National Building in downtown Detroit, our GiGiFIT Acceptance Challenges, The Lucky Have A Few, and more. 

How has volunteering here impacted your life?   

Being involved with GiGi’s allows me to see more hope and opportunities for my son.   

Do you have a favorite memory from your experiences at GiGi’s?  

My favorite memory stems from early fundraising. Shortly after that first meeting with Lisa, as collective efforts were gradually starting to bring a Playhouse to Michigan, I talked about GiGi’s with some of my coworkers. They decided to have a Euchre tournament, and donated all entry fees to help launch GiGi’s Playhouse Detroit. I found it exceptionally moving that my coworkers opted to support me this manner. I am lucky to work with the people at MathWorks. 

What would you say is the biggest misconception about individuals with Down syndrome?  

I think the biggest misconception is that people with Down syndrome won’t have quality of life. At GiGi’s, I regularly see participants laughing, joking around, socializing, and playing while learning. I see how much my son enjoys various activities, including playing baseball, playing drums in his middle school band, riding carousels and train rides at amusement parks, and staying in hotels on vacation. Additionally, the unique personalities, interests, and capabilities of each individual with Down syndrome shows how the stereotypes can be flat-out wrong. 

What would you say to someone who is considering volunteering at GiGi’s Playhouse?  

GiGi’s provides great training to learn how to support people with Down syndrome, so it isn’t necessary to be an expert when you start. It is a remarkably rewarding experience to watch the participants interact with each other and grow.  

Do you have a favorite quote?   

I love the phrase, “Presume competence.”  I think it fits well with looking at efforts for my son.  Last year, we visited an amusement park that offered cave tours as part of the experience. We wondered how Grant would do on a cave tour, and I remembered the phrase, “Presume competence.” We gave it a try, and he had a great time! He also handled the stairs like a champ, and others on the tour rooted him on. 

Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?

Despite my rather public activities of having been a Technical Trainer and a Weight Guesser, I’m actually an introvert. So, if you see me quietly mulling around by myself, please feel free to say hello! While I’m shy about inviting people to do something, I would certainly welcome playing a round of golf (despite having inherited my dad’s lack of golfing ability!), going bowling (used to be on a league – I miss that!), playing racquetball, or most other activities. I also enjoy trying new things, so suggestions are always welcome. 

Thank you, Jeff, for all you do for our Playhouse and participants. We are so grateful for you!!

Stay tuned for more Board Member Spotlights in the coming months!

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