We are beyond honored and thrilled to introduce Tola Makinde this week. Tola is the founder and executive director of the Moyinolowa Rainbow Foundation (MRF) in Lagos, Nigeria. MRF serves children and families with Down syndrome and believes that individuals with Down syndrome possess an extra ability, and GiGi’s NYC could not agree more! MRF encourages and supports their families in obtaining effective healthcare, strong parenting skills, early intervention, primary education, various therapies, vocational training, and much more. To learn more about Tola and MRF, please visit: https://www.modownsyndrome.org/
We hope you enjoy the below Q&A with Tola!
How and when did you first get involved with GiGi’s Playhouse NYC?
The twin cities, Minnesota, is one of my favorite states to visit in the United states of America. One of those times I visited in 2016, I discovered GiGi’s Playhouse Saint Paul Minnesota. I registered my daughter there and met parents and their kids. It was a beautiful experience for me because I discovered that programs I was inspired to develop back in Nigeria in 2014, had similar programs at GiGi’s. It was a pleasant coincidence, and since then, I had always looked forward to a relationship with GiGi’s. We met a basketball coach who was very friendly and hands-on with Mo (my daughter). At that moment I knew I had to visit again because Mo fell in love with basketball at the age of three. She loved pretend play and the gym at the Playhouse, and it was always hard for her to say goodbye. I visited some other Playhouses and met lovely volunteers and staff, who donated some books to my organization in Nigeria. I must confess that from that moment, I knew I would one day be involved with GiGi’s.
Why did you decide to volunteer with GiGi’S NYC?
I decided to volunteer because the vision of GiGi’s NYC aligns with my vision and we both have great and common ideas that would benefit the Down syndrome community globally. We both see a world where people with Down syndrome can live to their fullest potential if they get the required support needed which is almost always difficult to come by in Nigeria where I live. GiGi’s NYC believes that people with Down syndrome need acceptance and opportunities, and so do I. This was the very reason I felt connected with GiGi’s because I wanted to have the same impact in the lives of people I support in Nigeria that GiGi’s does.
What does GiGi’s NYC mean to you?
GiGi’s NYC is a rainbow of possibilities, hope, and faith. It means acceptance, positive vibes, energy, and passion. It constantly reminds me that my community is missing out when they do not accept or include people with Down syndrome, and that I can change the narratives if I do my part to make every day better than the last for someone with Down syndrome.
What do you do as a volunteer?
I support GiGi’s Playhouse generally and from the first time I stepped there in 2016, I imagined it as my second home. I have volunteered to be a guest art teacher at the Gratitude Art Committee at GiGi’s NYC, held weekly meetings with some of the amazing Board members to work on the GWEN commercial project, and developing the ways in which we can continue to collaborate. I also involved participants from my foundation in Nigeria to join the International Day of the Girl Child and Gala celebrations. In the winter, I will be a 1:1 literacy tutor.
What is your favorite thing about the GiGi’S NYC community?
The acceptance of people with Down syndrome and the support they give to them to help them achieve success. I also love that their community embraces projects that strengthen the Down syndrome community and other disabilities to help foster inclusion. It’s so mind blowing for me.
What does Down syndrome awareness and acceptance look like to you?
Awareness has been the greatest part of my work since 2014, and this has constantly put me out there from the start since I found the courage to share my story even though I was coming from a place of vulnerability, rejection, depression, and shame. It was hard initially because of deep cultural and social biases. I wanted to be my daughter’s microphone, give hope, and be the reason why someone would say they never gave up on their child. This mega move has helped my advocacy journey and I have realized that awareness is not enough. Acceptance for me is ensuring that people with Down syndrome are included, given opportunities, embraced, and supported in their various communities so that they can reach their highest potential. When I started sharing my story six years ago, there was little or no awareness and acceptance. People were afraid to be heard or seen. Now I am not only sharing my story, I am sharing other people’s stories to let the world know that Down syndrome is not a death sentence. People with Down syndrome have a right to life and acceptance for who they are. Seeing them as a full person makes them feel accepted.
What is the best part about volunteering with GiGi’s NYC?
Volunteering with GiGi’s NYC has reinforced the belief that people of different color, culture, and race can come together in unity of purpose and share love for social or common good. It makes me envision a life full of possibilities for the cause which connects us together with the understanding that we are one people.
How do you enjoy spending your free time?
I spend my free time relaxing, meditating, cooking, dancing, and watching or playing my favorite sport, tennis. I also love listening to stories and creating lovely memories with my family.
What do you look forward to doing at the Playhouse once we can safely gather there again?
I look forward to connecting with amazing parents, supporting babies in play and therapy, and playing games and teaching.
What do you want the GiGi’s Playhouse NYC community to know?
I want them to know they are awesome; they are loved and they inspire. I also want them to know that they are doing an amazing work and together we can rise!
Tola, we are endlessly inspired by the courageous and important work that you do. Your words are inspiring and we are so lucky to call you a friend and partner of GiGi’s NYC. Looking forward to continuing to change the world’s perception of Down syndrome together!