Exemplifying Generation G: The Arenas share their why behind support of GiGi’s Playhouse

Accepting, generous and kind! Philanthropist, small business owner and wife, Michelle Arena grew up knowing the value of individuals with Down syndrome and the importance of advocating for an underserved populations. She experienced first hand both the acceptance and the rejection of her brother Chris and wishes he was here to know the support and community of GiGi’s Playhouse. Thanks to one lucky conversation, both she and husband Peter, fell into the very welcoming lap of the Playhouse through a mutual friend and has been an instrumental advocate ever since!

Thanks to their amazing efforts on our volunteer team, their generous financial contributions and constant advocacy, Michelle and Peter Arena were honored the Honorary Chairs of this year’s ‘”i have a voice’ gala… but it is truly the Playhouse that is honored by them!

Thank you, Michelle, for sharing about your beloved brother Chris, the why behind your support of the Playhouse.

“I first learned of GiGi’s when I opened my small business and wanted to be involved with organizations that I had a personal connection with. My friend, Suzi knew that I was involved with organizations that served the Down syndrome community due to my brother having Down syndrome. Suzi introduced me to Jennifer Gage who had recently opened GiGi’s and the moment I walked into the Playhouse I knew that I wanted to be part of it. I could tell that it was going to be life-changing for all of the area families in need of a support network and a special place to spend time with their families

Michelle Arena giving support as a superstar volunteer

After selling my business (and having a lot more extra time!) I chose to join the volunteers at GiGi’s and help out wherever I was needed most. Peter has also been able to volunteer when he has free time. We believe in GiGi’s and the programs that they provide. The sense of community is addictive and just being around such caring volunteers and meeting all of the participants makes you smile inside and out. That good feeling follows you when you leave the Playhouse and impacts your life.

My younger brother, Christopher, had Down syndrome, and growing up side by side, I learned the meaning of being an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. Growing up in the 1970’s there were too many encounters with strangers who stared, pointed, taunted, or just ignored our family when we were out and about. My Mother didn’t break, she stood tall and I watched and learned and tried to be just as strong. I also learned that we are all given precious gifts that we sometimes don’t fully understand and we should never take them for granted.

Chris passed away in 1992 at the age of 22. Chris was accepted by all. He had health issues and physical limits but that didn’t stop him from living life to the fullest. Chris was always a part of any activity that our family and friends were involved in. Family, friends, and even strangers upon meeting Chris, felt his love for life and his positive attitude. Old friends tell me that they believe that their connection to Chris made them a better person and a better parent to their own children. Chris lives on forever in so many people.

Chris didn’t have a place like GiGi’s Playhouse but he would have loved going to GiGi’s and participating with friends and family. He was such a social guy and I can picture him as part of the cooking classes, music classes and art appreciation classes, just to name a few.”

GiGi’s Playhouse Phoenix is on the cusp of serving 1,000 Arizona families. That’s 1,000 families that cannot relate to Michelle and her family’s experience of not knowing, not having, not experiencing a place that feels like home for their loved one with Down syndrome. A place that sees and loves them just as they are, but knows that goals can be set high and possibilities for excelling are endless! But many families, too many families in Arizona and beyond, can still relate to Michelle’s experience.

We are so incredibly lucky to have the support of Michelle and Peter and so many others like them.  Being 100% community funded and 90% volunteer run, it’s impossible to build, maintain or grow without support like this. We’ve come a long way since Chris was growing up, but we still have a long way to go. Our goals are high, and we know that the possibilities for individuals with Down syndrome are endless.

Click here to follow in Michelle & Peter’s footsteps and volunteer with the Playhouse: https://gigisplayhouse.org/phoenix/volunteer/

Together, we are changing the way the world sees Down syndrome!

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