My Great Aunt Joanie

Written by our guest writer, Claire Parker

My Great Aunt Joanie was born in Dillon, SC in 1950 with a third copy of her twenty-first chromosome. When her family took her to school to start Kindergarten, she was denied the opportunity. They said that they could not teach students like her. So, her parents took her home, and she had to watch her three older siblings get to go to school each day. This was not the last time she would be denied opportunities because of her Ds diagnosis.

Joanie was such a wonderful part of our family. She always kept us entertained with her antics, but even more importantly, she made us better people. I was lucky enough to have my Aunt Joanie around for the first 10 years of my life. Even as her health declined towards the end of her life, she was loved fiercely by her family and friends at her assisted living facilities. It was hard not to love our Joanie.

When I transferred to Meredith College in Raleigh in January of 2022, I was delighted to learn that the area had a GiGi’s Playhouse. I had always heard of the organization but didn’t have one close by. Late that spring, I started going through the volunteer training process, and by the end of that summer, I was leading virtual social skills programs. Since then, I have continued to lead many different types of programs, tutor friends in both math and reading, and serve as a job coach for many individuals with Ds entering the workforce. Some of my favorite opportunities have been watching my tutoring students read an entire book aloud at the end of their session, job coaching young adults throughout the community, and seeing individuals with Ds shine at NC State Victory Day. I love my GiGi’s Raleigh family, and I am very grateful for the relationships I have built!

My Aunt Beth moved to Orange County, California in early 2022. GiGi’s Playhouse was set to open its Orange County location in Laguna Hills later that year. Once I started leading programs and seeing all the work they do, I suggested that she become involved with her local playhouse. She had been a monthly donor for a while but was never able to see the organization in action. Aunt Beth became one of their very first volunteers, helping with the grand opening, assisting with the weekly GiGiFit classes, and serving on different event committees. She is so loved by her friends at GiGi’s, and she supports them in all that they do. She has been known to go to her friends’ sporting events and birthday parties.

As GiGi’s OC was getting set to open, they had opportunities to donate and name different areas in honor or memory of those with Ds. My Uncle Billy gave a large donation to GiGi’s OC in Joanie’s honor. She loved all things scotch tape, markers, paper, Disney movies, Kenny Rogers, Bonanza, and Reese’s cups. Now, her creative corner at GiGi’s OC serves as a place for little ones with Ds to interact with one another and play together, something that she never got the opportunity to do. We are so thankful that his generosity will support individuals with Ds thousands of miles from Joanie’s home state.

While Aunt Joanie is no longer with us, we continue to use her legacy as a driving force. Our family volunteers with GiGi’s Playhouse to help provide opportunities to the next generation of people with Ds. We always send each other photos of the different events happening and share stories like “This friend reminded me of Joanie today when we did karaoke,” or “Look at these friends getting the opportunity to work at an ice cream shop, that would have been something Aunt Joanie could have done.”

Could have done. Aunt Joanie COULD have done all these different things but was never given the chance. The mission behind GiGi’s is to teach the world that people with Ds should have these different opportunities. People with Ds SHOULD be employed, go to school, work towards independence, and be treated as equals. We hope that through our volunteering and donations to this amazing organization, our family can be a small part of helping to make a global push for acceptance, inclusion, and education. We are sad that Aunt Joanie never got to go to a GiGi’s Playhouse herself, but we know she is smiling down on all of us and watching her legacy live on at GiGi’s locations from coast to coast.

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