Down Syndrome Acceptance Month

Today is officially the end of Down Syndrome Awareness Acceptance Month.  We have had such a great time introducing everyone to 30 of our amazing participants through our daily “Spotlights” on our Facebook page.  Our specific intention over the last 30 days was to inspire people to look beyond the diagnosis to see the individual.   Our participants all have a full or partial third copy of  their 21st chromosome that alters the course of their development and results in some common characteristics associated with Down syndrome.  Beyond that, they are NOT Down syndrome!

They are Landon… and Julia… and Camden… and Khali.  They are individuals with their own stories, their own successes, their own struggles, their own hopes and dreams. By sharing some of their stories, our hope was that you would see the amazing parts that make up the whole, and that you would be encouraged and inspired to share a message of acceptance.   Differences are not a problem – it’s when we fail to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences that we run into trouble.  THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS IN OUR WORLD THAT DIVIDE US… PLEASE DON’T LET AN EXTRA CHROMOSOME BE ONE OF THOSE THINGS!DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 1

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… LANDON

If you need a smile, Landon has a contagious one to share with you!   Currently 11 years old, Landon was born on July 15th and he lives in Durand with his mom, dad, two sisters, and two dogs!  He is a 5th grader at Durand Elementary School, where he enjoys a very supportive learning community.

Landon’s “favorites” are not much of a mystery — you are most likely to see that smile that lights up a room when he is hanging out with his sisters (Delaney, 13, and Harper, 7), his grandparents, or his beloved dogs.  When he is four-wheeling with his siblings, riding in his Meema’s convertible, or chillin’ with Ruger (his Chocolate Lab) and Pecan (his Goldendoodle service dog), Landon is in his element!  Some of his other favorite things include bananas, listening to music, and watching movies (with dogs in them, of course!).  If he can find a future job involving canine companions, this dog whisperer is sure to succeed!

When it comes to GiGi’s Playhouse, Literacy with Ms. Erin is Landon’s favorite program.  The Playhouse has always been part of Landon’s life, as his grandparents were instrumental in bringing it to Rockford not long after his birth.  His mom adds, “We’ve met some of the greatest people and families through GiGi’s, and we can’t quite imagine what life would be like without it!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 2

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… JULIA

When invited to participate in the DSAM Spotlight, this 23-year-old go-getter promptly sat down and independently drafted her entire bio.  Impressive!  A 2015 graduate of East High School, Julia tackles challenges with enthusiasm, persistence, and a “can do” attitude!  Her interests are extensive and varied.  Adept at both karate and sign language, Julia also enjoys baking, dancing, bike rides, playing board games and Wii, exercising, theater/drama, and Leo Club.

Family and friends are very important to Julia.  Her favorite people are her parents, Dave and Joanne, and she most enjoys hanging out with her sister Grace.  (Thank goodness for FaceTime!  It makes it a little easier when Grace is away at college.)   Julia also loves to spend time with her other sisters (Julianne, Stephanie, and Alexia), visit with her four Grandmas, play with her cousins, and hang out with her “peeps” (like Emily, Cara, and Colleen).

Currently employed as an office assistant at Wheels by RT, Julia’s  dream job is to be a great chef because she loves to cook meals for her family.  Speaking of things she loves, her favorite teams are the Cubs and the Packers; her favorite sports are karate and basketball; her favorite colors are green & yellow (Go Pack, Go!) and purple; and her favorite foods are burgers and ice cream.

When asked about her favorite program at the Playhouse, she answered, “I like ALL GiGi’s programs!”  However, some of her favorites are GiGi U, GiGi’s Kitchen, Marvelous Mondays (SMART), Portal Theater, and Cheer Gems.  Since Covid began, she has also been participating virtually in LMNOP, GiGiFit, and GiGi Yoga.  She regularly participates in about 8 or 9 classes per week through GiGi’s at Home and loves them all!

In regard to GiGi’s, Julia stated, “I have met many friends and volunteers. I have learned karate and cooking.  I have more confidence in my social skills.  I like going to a place that is for me and my friends with Down syndrome.”  And, as if we are all impressed enough already, we would like to add that Julia has lost 15 lbs. since Covid began by exercising more and not eating fast food.   Wow!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 3

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… JOSH

You don’t have to spend too much time with 42-year-old Josh to see the joy that lives within him!   He exudes quiet contentment and genuine gratitude for the gifts in his life, and that part of his character brings so much light to those around him.

If you ask those closest to him, they will simply say that Josh “LOVES!”  Period… end of sentence.  Josh loves his church, he loves his job, he loves the Playhouse, and he most especially loves his family.  Josh is very close to his parents, and revels in the time he spends with his siblings.  He’s also an amazing uncle and dotes on his nieces and nephews.  We also cannot forget his enthusiasm for sports.  He is a loyal supporter of the Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls, and Bears… but his greatest allegiance is to his beloved Cubbies!

For more than 20 years now, Josh has been working at Rock Church.  He takes great pride in keeping the building neat and clean.  According to his Mom, Josh enjoys his work so much that every single time they leave the building, he makes a point of telling her that he loves his job.  In addition to his work life, Josh is also committed to giving back by volunteering at his church, City First.  He serves as a coach in Champions Club for children with special needs.

Regarding GiGi’s Playhouse, Josh’s favorite programs are Friday Friends and GiGi’s Kitchen.  His Mom and Dad serve as Host Family for the Friday Friends program, and Josh steadfastly participates in set-up and clean-up for every session.  He looks forward to the camaraderie that he shares with the 65-70 participants and volunteers that show up for each meeting of Friday Friends!   He also loves to help prepare (and eat!) the amazing meals they cook in GiGi’s Kitchen.  His Mom remarks that, “GiGi’s has brought such great joy to Josh and our family.  We are so grateful for the friendships, acceptance and the things we all learn from this very special place!”

One last thing that Josh would like us to know is that he believes that EVERYDAY is a GOOD DAY, no matter the weather!  It seems we could all learn a lot from Josh.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 4

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… CAMDEN

You know the saying about how great things come in small packages?  Camden (age 4) might be small, but this active, fun-loving little dynamo is “large and in charge!”  Living in Roscoe with his mom, dad and older brothers Kyle and Caden, nothing stands in this boy’s way of keeping up with the “big guys.”

Those “big guys” mean the world to Camden!  He watches everything they do, and then he jumps in with both feet.  Whether it’s gaming, playing catch or T-ball, cheering them on at their baseball games, or watching sports with their dad, these brothers are the “Three Musketeers.”

Paying attention and romping after his older brothers is really paying off for Camden as he meets milestones by the minute and becomes increasingly independent.  It’s awesome to watch him take pride in achieving new things, like joining the Wicked Elite Cheer Team in Roscoe.  He participates with typically developing children, and his parents said the acceptance he has experienced there means the world to them.

The future is wide open for Camden, but his mom has a feeling he might end up as a teacher or doing something that helps others.  In his more serious moments, he’s very good at keeping things in order and “letting you know he’s the boss,” but he also loves to sing and dance, give hugs and kisses, and generally “brings good vibes to a room!”

At this point, Camden’s favorite Playhouse program is LMNOP.  His mom concludes, “It’s so important for everyone to be able to connect with someone.  Being in a room of families that are like yours just completes us.  We have an instant bond.  We are so thankful for this connection that the Playhouse brings to families.  Thank you, GiGi’s Playhouse for helping others shine!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 5

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… MARTIN

If our Day 5 Spotlight Participant was hoping to keep his big day a secret for some reason, we would just like to say in advance … Ooooops!  Sorry!   HAPPY 21ST BIRTHDAY MARTY!  Besides, there’s probably very little chance that his brothers and sisters (John, Katie, Mary, Anna, Michael, Teresa, Joey, Nick, Pat, Suzie, Julia, Kevin, and Brian) would let a day like that slide by in silence, right?

In case you lost count, Martin Joseph (Marty) is one of 14 children, and although you might think it would be easy to get lost in a crowd like that, this birthday boy (Excuse me… birthday MAN!) finds a way to stand out!  Living in Leaf River with his parents and a handful of his siblings (including Michael, who also has Down syndrome), Marty has a tendency to go out and chase his dreams rather than waiting for them to come to him.

Armed with the tools and knowledge he gained through GiGi U and an entrepreneurial spirit, Marty started his own business when he was 18 years old.  “Marty’s Mighty Lawn Care” opened in the summer of 2018, and it is still going strong.  In addition to being a business owner, this industrious young man has also participated in GiGi U internships at the Rockford Police Department (being an Officer is his dream job!), BraveHearts Riding Center, Share Stuff, and Parker Center School.

A very athletic person, most of Marty’s interests revolve around playing sports (football, basketball, track, softball, or just working out) or watching sports (especially the Bears and Cubs).  He also enjoys hanging out with friends and his siblings –especially Suzie – no offense to the other 12!  His favorite food is pizza; his favorite singer is John Paul Vox Arx; and his favorite color is blue, because… you guessed it… it matches his eyes!

In addition to GiGi U, Marty has also enjoyed attending Literacy, TeenTastics, and GiGi’s Kitchen at the Playhouse.  His mom adds, “GiGi’s has been amazing for Marty. He has made friends, worked in several internships which he LOVES, started his own business, gained confidence, and is the nicest person you ever will meet.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 6

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… KENDALL

In case you were wondering, “rainbow” is DEFINITELY  a color.  If you don’t believe that, just ask eight-year-old Kendall, and she will set you straight because “rainbow” has been her favorite “color” for years!  This active 2nd grader lives in Rockton with her mom, dad, and all-time favorite person (also known as her 11-year-old sister, Brooklynn).

Mom says her older daughter earned that title legitimately as Kendall’s “go to” person.  Whether its building forts, playing dress-up or Barbies, dancing to music videos, or picking her up when she falls, Brooklynn is always there for her… and that means the world to Kendall!  According to mom, its “Brooklynn, babysitters, and Grandma Jan … in that order!”  Babysitters – especially teenage babysitters – are seriously cool.  Okay, maybe not as cool as Brooklynn, but on a KK (short for Kendall Kathryn) scale of 1 to 10, they are a solid 11 all day long!

Other things that rate as “cool” in Kendall’s world include:  Beef-A-Roo (the staff at the Roscoe Beef-A-Roo knows her by name!);  singer Justin Bieber and YouTuber Annie LeBlanc (music is a reward that ALWAYS works!); swimming and dancing (she is definitely going to be a dancer when she grows up!); and ALL holidays (especially Halloween – she will dress up and trick-or-treat from bedroom to bathroom to bedroom given the chance!).

As for GiGi’s, Kendall has always enjoyed participating in LMNOP and loves all the holiday parties with her peers.  Last year, she got the opportunity to join the Portal Theater program and played the title role in the full-stage production of “Thumbalina.”  Her dad added, “GiGi’s is the first place we found to help us out when Kendall was a baby. There were so many things we did not know about raising a child with Down syndrome. The playhouse helped us find those secrets and work to support Kendall in so many ways.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 7

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… STEVE

The familiar lyrics to the theme song of the iconic 80’s sitcom “Cheers” have stood the test of time:  “You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same; You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  For 50-year-old Steve, that’s what GiGi’s Playhouse feels like.  “It’s family,” he says. “When I’m there, I always know that I’m respected and accepted.”

That’s a significant statement from someone born in 1970, at a time when individuals with Down syndrome, in general, were neither respected nor accepted.  Steve knows what it feels like to work hard to earn both of those things.  Growing up with parents Ken and Evelyn and younger siblings Sheehan and Scott, Steve was always encouraged to dream, reach, grow and achieve.

Designated as a Global Messenger, Steve has participated in the Special Olympics for the past 42 years; loyal to both God and country, he is a Fourth Degree member of the Knights of Columbus; and, he was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout by the Boy Scouts of America.  He works at the  Rockford Public Library and volunteers with the CAP (Citizens Assisting Police) Program with the Rockford Police Department.

A 1991 graduate of Jefferson High School, Steve enjoys listening to music, doing jigsaw puzzles, and spending time with family, friends, and his girlfriend Erika.  He is very close to his brother and sister, and he takes great pride in being an Uncle to Miles and Kenna.   He also likes working out at the YMCA (his dream job is being a trainer there) and participating in programs through the Rockford Park District.

Steve is quick to point out that his favorite programs at GiGi’s Playhouse are Friday Friends and GiGi’s Kitchen.  As a result of the latter, he has developed quite a knack for cooking and loves to try out new recipes at home.  Reflecting on the impact of the Playhouse, his mom states, “Rockford is so fortunate to have GiGi’s Playhouse.  In 1970, I had to go to the library to read the ONE book I could find about Down syndrome.  Playhouse families now have a multitude of resources.  They have support, and they know they are not alone.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 8

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… KEZIAH

Even three -year-olds gotta have their jam!  For Keziah, an animated YouTube children’s series called Dave & Ava is just the ticket!  The 2020 twist on classic nursery rhymes has this little wiggle worm movin’ and groovin’… and she knows ALL the moves.   If you want to “buddy up” to our Spotlight girl-on-the-go, you might want to brush up on some of her current favorites, which include “Finger Family” and “Wheels on the Bus.”  Already showing excellent taste at age three, Kezzy knows you just can’t go wrong with a classic like “Wheels on the Bus!”

Living in Oregon, IL with mom and dad, our youngest Spotlight participant is currently enrolled in Pre-K at Oregon Elementary School.  Majoring in “Making People Smile,” Keziah is carrying a full load with a rare triple minor in music, coloring and dancing, but she somehow manages to squeeze in an elective course on hiking.  Where she finds the time, we’ll never know!  Luckily, she’s able to work in a few strategically placed chicken nugget breaks to keep her going strong!

Keziah’s stepsiblings, Katie (23) and Will (22) are on hand to support and encourage her, as well as her nephew Michael (5) and niece Alleiah (3).  Hands down, however, her favorite person is her 12-year-old cousin, Adyson.  The two have an amazing bond  and  “Adyson would do anything for Keziah!”

Despite a bit of a drive to get to the Playhouse, Keziah’s mom has had her involved in LMNOP since she was an infant.  Not surprisingly, her favorite part of the program is singing!  Mom told us that GiGi’s has been a great support during Kezzy’s first three years of life, and that it has been incredibly beneficial to meet other moms on a similar journey.   Noting that Keziah’s  “free spirted and extremely independent” personality can be a little scary sometimes as a parent, the Playhouse has also helped her to understand that those characteristics will take her far in life.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 9

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… COLLEEN

Senior year is a REALLY  big deal!  If you don’t believe that, just ask this ambitious, out-going, 18-year-old future graduate of Guilford High School.  Despite the obvious wet blanket that Covid-19 has thrown on so many typical senior year activities, Colleen has managed to remain upbeat and enthusiastic about what the future has in store for her.

With a clear idea of the direction she wants to go, Colleen is chasing her dream.  Her goal is to become a Paraprofessional in a school setting.  To that end, she is currently participating in a training program at Fairview Early Childhood Center, which is also where she attended preschool herself.   She has also completed several college campus tours and is actively studying for her Paraprofessional exam.

Staying on-track is important when you live in an active, on-the-go household.  Home for Colleen means mom, dad, sister Caitlyn (15), and brother Ryan (12), as well as Golden Retriever (Riley) and four-month-old King Charles Spaniel (Russell).  In addition to hanging out with her family and her pups, Colleen has worked at Beef-A-Roo for two years and she volunteers at the Discovery Center Museum.

When she isn’t busy working toward her future, you might find Colleen cheerleading (Yes…she can do the splits!), bowling, baking, or acting in shows at Starlight Theatre.  Among her other favorite things are pop music, orange (the color… not the fruit!), and spending time with her BFF, Cara.   However, if you need to know the way to her heart, Colleen emphatically maintains, “Chicken and noodles are my life!”  Duly noted!

About the Playhouse, Colleen states, “GiGi’s is my home away from home!” Though her time is stretched in many directions now, she loved Cheer Gems and Portal Theater, and still enjoys meeting up with friends in TeenTastics, tutoring with Ms. Erin, and jumping on virtually with GiGi’s Music and LMNOP through GiGi’s at Home.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 10

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… KHALI

You might think that a 16-year-old whose favorite color is GRAY would be someone with a dark  or pessimistic outlook.  On the contrary, with a smile that starts in her eyes and can brighten any room, Khali is more like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.

In fact, Khali’s parents refer to her as “Khali Kauai” because she reminds them of their favorite trip to Hawaii.  Living in Roscoe with mom and dad, the sophomore at Hononegah High School loves to remind her folks that they are, indeed, her “FAVORITE parents!”  We can almost picture the impish grin that accompanies that compliment!

Like every other teenager in America, Khali loves to be on-the-go!  She is a member of the Hononegah JV Dance Team, swims for the Pennock Penguins (the YMCA Special Olympics Swim Team) and loves to hang out with her friends from the Dance Team & Dance Studio.    In addition to dancing and swimming, she also loves movies (her favorite is “13 Going on 30”) and music (“Rain on Me” by Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande is her favorite song!).  Her favorite things to eat are French fries and chocolate shakes (salty-sweet combo… good choice, Khali!).  She hasn’t really decided yet, but she is thinking of becoming a hair stylist and/or a house designer.  Go, girl!

GiGi’s has played an important role in Khali’s life.  In addition to being a place where she has made many friends, her parents are grateful to the Playhouse for “helping Khali become more confident and independent.”  She has a great time participating in Lemonade Days and had so much fun doing two shows with Portal Theater (“Wizard of Oz” and “Charlotte’s Web”).  However, her two favorite Playhouse programs are Cheer Gems and TeenTastics, and she can’t wait to get back to seeing her friends there on a regular basis!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 11

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… SAM

Sam has a rather serious reputation to maintain at GiGi’s Playhouse Rockford.  If he shows up and he is NOT decked out in his latest and greatest Cubs or Bears gear, we all panic and assume there’s something wrong!  Don’t let us down, Sam … we’re counting on you to carry the torch for all the “die hards!”

The 1996 graduate of Harlem High School has varied interests, but if he had to pick a dream job, it would be a toss-up between being a Hollywood star, being a clothes designer, or playing for the Chicago Cubs.    Meanwhile, he enjoys working at HMH Concrete Construction, Inc., where cleaning, getting the mail, and mowing the lawn with the tractor are among his responsibilities.  It should be noted that Sam is always willing to lend a hand when there is work to be done at the Playhouse, routinely volunteering to vacuum and help clean up after almost every program he attends.

The  middle of three children, 44-year-old Sam is sandwiched between his sister Heather and his brother Dominic.  A true “people person,” Sam finds great enjoyment in time spent with those he is closest to, including his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, his best friend Brian, and his dog Gia.  Sam also loves to watch his Cubs and Bears (shocking!), swim in his families’ pool,  help with the cooking (his favorite food is salmon), do art projects,  go to concerts, and drive his golf cart.

Sam always looks forward to participating in Playhouse programs and spending time with the staff, volunteers, and friends that he has gotten to know so well over the years.  His favorite programs at GiGi’s include Friday Friends, Marvelous Mondays (SMART), and GiGi’s Kitchen.  His family adds, “Being at the Playhouse makes Sam very happy … we all love that place!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 12

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… MAVIS

If you were to ask her big brother what his little sister’s dream job would be, his straight-forward answer would be, “Being a boss… because she’s REALLY good at telling us what to do!”  She may be only five years old, but rest assured that Mavis has already learned to channel her inner “girl power!”  Look out world!

Mavis, a proud member of the Class of 2033, is currently a Kindergartner at Cherry Valley Elementary School.  She lives in Rockford with mom, dad, older sister Maddy (16), and older brother Toby (7).

When she’s just chillin’ – we all need to take a break from ruling the world occasionally – Mavis enjoys dancing, swimming, coloring, painting, and just kickin’ back with her “bigs.”  (Don’t tell anyone, but she actually thinks her siblings are pretty amazing!  Shhhhhhh!)  Knowing that, it’s not too surprising that her favorite team is the Auburn High School Girl’s Tennis Team … because that’s her sister’s team!  In what’s left of her spare time, Mavis entertains the masses with her own Facebook page (called “Moments with Mavis”) where the intro line is, “Keep up as I, Mavis, teach my parents and the world about love and life, growing up with Down syndrome.  I’ll even provide the soundtrack!” (P.S.  If you need to feel better about this crazy world, spend a few minutes on Moments with Mavis!)

Regarding GiGi’s Playhouse, mom had this to say:  “GiGi’s gave our friends and family a special course on the ‘ins and outs’ of Ds before Mavis was even born so we could better understand her special needs and really appreciate her gifts. LMNOP helped her communicate with us before she could even utter words. The fellow families we’ve met and made friends with are insightful, kind, and wonderful. It’s great going through this journey with them. WE REALLY ARE THE LUCKY FEW!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 13

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… MICHAELA

With all the vibrancy and energy of typical teenage girls, it seems fitting that  our 14-year-old Spotlight  participant’s favorite colors are not just any old shade of pink and purple, but specifically NEON pink and NEON purple!  Living in Rockford, Michaela attends Heartland Church and is now an 8th grader at Lincoln Middle School.

Michaela is doing an amazing job of blazing the trail into the teen universe for her younger sister, Mady (age 11).  With two mega-hit Disney Channel franchises as her favorite movies (“Zombies” and “Descendants”), a scream-worthy, English-Irish pop boy band (One Direction) as her favorite musicians, and culinary classics like pizza, pasta, and peanut butter cups as her favorite foods, Michaela definitely has a firm grasp on the quintessential teen experience.

On a more serious note, Michaela is also setting an excellent example by finding ways to make a difference in her community.  Prior to Covid, she was actively volunteering on the Children’s Worship Team at Heartland.   She was also volunteering at the PAWS animal shelter, where she loved spending time reading to the cats who were waiting to find their forever homes.

When she is not volunteering or busy with schoolwork, Michaela  enjoys listening to music, hanging out with her family, and being a member of both the Lincoln Middle School Cheer Team and GiGi’s Cheer Gems.  If she could pursue her dream job in the future, Michaela says she would like to work in the hair/make-up/fashion industry OR she would like to be a “YouTube” star.  Maybe she will combine the two and be a YouTube Fashion Expert!  Reach for the stars, Michaela!

You might be able to guess that Cheer Gems is one of Michaela’s favorite Playhouse programs, but she also really enjoys TeenTastics and GiGi’s Kitchen.  Regardless of the program, her favorite part of going to the Playhouse is seeing all the friends she has made there.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 14

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… JAMES

A little less than two years ago, I was still fairly new at the Rockford Playhouse, and I asked Stacey to help me place a participant in my head.  “Oh, you know him,” she said.  “He’s the wonderful young man with great manners who comes in on Wednesdays, and he always makes a point of coming into my office to greet me with a huge smile when he first arrives!”   Based on her glowing description, I knew EXACTLY who James was, and I never forgot his name after that moment.

James, age 31, graduated from Huntington High School in Huntington, NY in 2009.  He now resides in Woodstock, IL with his mom and dad (which is part of why he usually only comes to the Playhouse once a week – it’s an hour drive!).  He is the younger brother to sister, Emily, who lives in Portland, Oregon.

James is quick to rattle off some of his favorites (his favorite color is red; his favorite food is pizza, and his favorite team is the Chicago Blackhawks), but his true interests shine through a bit more when he mentions that his favorite movie is “The Wizard of Oz” and his favorite song is “If I Only Had a Brain.”  James loves writing scripts, reading the Classics, and watching (or acting in!) musicals.

If his dreams were to become reality, James would transfer his passion for writing into a full-time career.  His dream job is to become a screenwriter for movies.  Move over Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg!  Meanwhile, James is content now to gather inspiration from his volunteer work at the Rockford Rescue Mission and from his favorite times spent with his friend Sam and close family members (pictured below, hanging out with Grandpa Bill, dancing with his sister Emily at a cousin’s wedding, and acting in Mary Poppins, Jr. with his Uncle Brian).

James thoroughly enjoys the time he spends at GiGi’s Playhouse with the new friends he has made there.  One of his favorite activities is dancing with the Rockford Dance Company staff when they offer classes for the GiGi U students.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 15

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… JEREMY

When it comes to sports, 38-year-old Jeremy is a SERIOUS fan!  Though he maintains that his dream job would be playing baseball in the Major Leagues, he also gets pumped up by his favorite WWE wrestlers, backs the Pack all the way (Go Green Bay!), and rarely misses a home game for the Ice Hogs.  Way to represent, Jeremy!

It might not be the Major Leagues, but Jeremy has been steadily employed for the past 19 years … and that’s PRETTY MAJOR!  He enjoys his job working at the McDonalds at Route 251 and 173, and he has been with them since around the time he graduated from Harlem High School in 2001.

Jeremy has two sisters and one brother and lives in Machesney Park.  Although he technically shares a house with his parents, he happily lives a very independent lifestyle in a separate apartment on a different level of the house.  He cooks his own meals, washes his clothes, cleans and decorates his apartment, and loves taking care of his puppy, Miss Molly!

In his spare time, Jeremy enjoys reading, playing games, and watching sports (of course!).  He also loves spending time with family and friends, many of whom he has met at GiGi’s Playhouse.  His favorite programs at the Playhouse are Friday Friends, GiGi’s Kitchen, and Literacy with his tutor, Mike.  About two years ago, Jeremy was a bit nervous to present his first research project for Literacy.  Most of us get nervous about presenting in front of a crowd, but Jeremy reached deep, fought past his fear, and ABSOLUTELY NAILED IT!  A word of advice… please don’t waste time telling Jeremy what he can’t do or what he won’t accomplish – because he CAN and he WILL!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 16

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… EMILY

If you ask 10-year-old Emily to tell you about her “best day ever,” she might give you a list!  First – the day she got to be a flower girl in a friend’s wedding – the dress, the hair, the make-up, the rehearsal, the ceremony, and then dancing the night away … OMG!   Second – the day she got to meet Mickey Mouse at Disney – enough said!  Third – any day you say the words “Road Trip” in front of her – especially if it involves a hotel with a BIG pool!

This traveling girl doesn’t let moss grow under her feet!  Emily, a 5th grader at Rolling Green Elementary School in Rockford, lives life to the fullest every day.  Whether its swimming, cooking, shopping, hanging out with family, or singing and grooving to Radio Disney, the Masked Singer, or her favorites Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan, she does it all with gusto and an increasingly wide independent streak!  She loves to be a “big helper” and is especially enthused about making pancakes and doing the dishes!  Remind me to give her my address!!

Emily loves anything pink, French fries (especially cheese fries at Beef-A-Roo), the Chicago Bears, being outside, and dinosaurs.  In fact, Emily loves dinosaurs so much that when mom asked her what she wants to be when she grows up, she’s currently torn between “doctor” and “dinosaur.” (Let’s be real… dinosaurs have fewer college loans!)   Truth be told, however, Emily’s real favorite thing is her 22-year-old brother, Alex.  Though he is away at college now, the two of them are still very close and routinely communicate via video chat at least a couple times a week.

Emily has enjoyed attending Literacy, holiday parties, and community events at GiGi’s Playhouse, but Cheer Gems is definitely her favorite program.  Mom adds, “GiGi’s has provided so many opportunities for Emily. We have met so many amazing people and families on our journey.  We are excited to see what the future holds as education and acceptance continue to grow.  The road is not always easy, but we are blessed to have Emily.  Her determination and strength are an inspiration!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 17

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… SAM

As the Director of the Playhouse, writing these “Spotlight” pieces on our participants is truly an honor, but when I got the bio information for 12-year-old Sam, I knew it was time for me to take a break and tap out for a day.  No one could describe Sam better than his sister, Binka…

“Sam’s favorite things include spending time with his siblings, throwing the frisbee, drumming for the family band, practicing karate, doing tricks on the trampoline, Nerf guns, Dude Perfect, dancing, shamelessly hijacking all family birthday cake candles, railroads, and train rides with Dad.  He  loves wearing neon-colored sportswear and has a particular interest in matching his brothers’ clothes whenever possible.”

“Sam’s favorite food is the Culver’s trifecta: hamburger, French fries, and a chocolate shake – also his preferred bribery for timely chores and schoolwork.  His favorite movie varies, although John Wayne and the Three Stooges are always on his radar. Sam was born with a knack for music, and he loves listening to a variety of tunes. Lollipop by The Chordettes and Tutti Frutti by Little Richard bring an instant smirk to his face and almost guarantee an animated dance routine.  He is a dishwasher emptier extraordinaire and proud Uncle to ‘Little Cricket.’  He would love to be a full-time drummer, playing country music with older brother John Paul, who is also his favorite person… along with anyone amenable to a Culver’s run!”

“As the youngest of the 9 Von Arx children (with siblings Joe, John Paul, Binka, Annie, Francesca, Max – in heaven with Jesus, Mary, and Teresa), Sam holds a special place in the hearts of his family. We have been immeasurably blessed to call Sam our son and brother, and we love him so much. Where others see Sam’s Down Syndrome as an impediment to a normal life, we see his quirks as a ray of sunshine, showing us how to live our best life. We love you forever, Sam! You are awesome.”

“GiGi’s was an invaluable resource when welcoming Sam into our family as a premature newborn with Down syndrome. They offered our family a supportive community, helping us to learn what to expect of Sam and how to care for a child with special needs. GiGi’s was the confidence boost we needed when Sam was too young to show us his own confidence and vibrant personality.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 18

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… CAREY

If you want a snapshot of what independence looks like for a person with Down syndrome, look no further.  Carey, age 43, lives in her own apartment and has been working two jobs simultaneously for the past couple of years.  You go, girl!

After graduating from Harlem High School in 1998, Carey was determined to get her own place, and she succeeded.  For the past 20 years, Carey has been living independently with her friend Jennifer, who also has Down syndrome.  Though they can both be opinionated and strong-willed at times, they get along very well and have helped each other manage the ups and downs of daily life.

Carey’s personality is an interesting mix of “laid back” and “get it done.”  She’s calm, cool, and collected, but when something needs to be done, she takes charge and makes it happen.   Even as a preschooler, when the teacher stepped out of the room and the kids started getting restless, Carey walked to the front of the class and got everyone to chill out until the teacher came back!  Her tendency to take things in stride while staying on track has undoubtedly served her well as she holds down two jobs at Target and at the Backyard Grill & Bar.

In her personal life, Carey enjoys spending time with Troy (her  boyfriend of two years), watching the WWE,  and cheering on her Green Bay Packers!  She has also been very involved in the Special Olympics for close to 30 years.  She represented Illinois 10 years ago for Bocce Ball at the USA Games, and in 1995 she represented the USA for soccer at the Special Olympics World Games!

GiGi’s Playhouse has a special place in Carey’s heart, and she takes great pride in the roles she has played there as a self-advocate.   Pre-Covid, she regularly assisted the Marvelous Mondays (SMART) volunteers with program activities at the Playhouse.  She also did an amazing job of representing GiGi’s last year as she addressed more than 50 medical school students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine to provide insight into best practices for doctors as they serve individuals with Down syndrome.  Inspiring!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 19

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… CARA

Friendships, like most relationships, are about give and take.  That’s one thing that 17-year-old Cara seems to be very clear about … if you want to HAVE good friends, you must BE a good friend.  Cara feels blessed to have a solid crew of close friends, including her besties Colleen, Julia, Violet, and Khali.  They have her back, and she has theirs!

Cara looks at her other relationships in much the same way.  The senior at Guilford High School in Rockford is very close to her family (including mom, dad, sister Katie, her grandparents, and her dog, Odin).  Whether she is hanging out on the home front or kicking back at the lake, Cara always enjoys the time she spends with the people she loves.

Besides chillin’ with her peeps, Cara enjoys swimming, singing, dancing, coloring, and being a member of the Cheer Gems.  Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato top her list of favorite singers, while Teen Beach is her favorite movie.   Some of her other favorites include science, blue, Uno, and pasta.  Those may refer to her favorite color, food, game, and school subject – feel free to unscramble them at your own risk!  Unscrambling (or scrambling) things might come in handy if Cara decides to pursue her dream job of becoming a preschool teacher (or a chef).

Cara also has a great time at all of the programs she participates in at the Playhouse, including Cheer Gems, TeenTastics, GiGi’s Kitchen, and Art Explosion.  Her mom adds, “GiGi’s has given Cara the opportunity to be a part of something, a feeling of belonging, and the ability to try new things.  She has also met a great group of friends.  GiGi’s has given us all joy.  We couldn’t imagine having Cara grow up without having all the experiences that GiGi’s offers.  It has helped her succeed in school and life!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 20

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… MICHAEL

Have you ever met someone so friendly, kind-spirited and genuine that you immediately feel at ease in their presence?  The cynics of the world would probably say that those people are “too good to be true.”  But those cynics haven’t met Michael!

“Once he meets you,” says Michael’s mom, “he will remember you and make you feel like you are the most important person in the world!”  The 28-year-old from Leaf River pays attention, is truly interested in what others are saying, and has an uncanny ability to remember everyone’s birthday.

It’s refreshing and unexpected when someone who is one of 14 children (Yes, 14…Michael is brother to Marty, who was featured in our Spotlight on October 5th!) randomly remembers your birthday, but Michael does it without fail.  Once you get to know him, you realize that’s an essential element of who Michael is.  He’s kind, caring, compassionate, thoughtful, and he is in his element when he is helping others.

Michael gets the opportunity to do what he loves in his role as Teaching Assistant to Ms. Erin at GiGi U.  When he’s not helping out at the Playhouse, Michael likes to spend time praying for people, singing, and participating in basketball and track (especially with the Special Olympics).  His favorite color is green (an homage to his Irish heritage!); his favorite food is taco pizza; his favorite teams are the Bears and the Cubs; his favorite movie is “The Sound of Music”; and, his favorite song is a duet of “White Christmas.”  Last, but certainly not least, his favorite people to spend time with are Laren (his girlfriend of four years), his friends at GiGi’s, and his family.

The Playhouse is like a second home to Michael, and he particularly enjoys Friday Friends, GiGi U (of course!), GiGi’s Kitchen, and Literacy.  After being away from GiGi’s for several months due to Covid, Michael’s mom noted that, “His whole demeanor changed when he walked through the doors of the Playhouse… he was sooooo happy!”  She added that, “Michael is a different person because of GiGi’s – it brings out the best in him!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 21

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… LAREN

If 28-year-old Laren was a contestant on “Jeopardy” and Alex Trebek announced that one of the categories was “Disney Movies,” she would waive off the low dollar questions and go straight to “Alex, I’ll take Disney Movies for $1000!”  You can keep those wimpy $200 questions, because when it comes to Disney, she knows all the movies and all the characters.

Not surprisingly, watching movies (especially when she goes to the movie theatre) is one of Laren’s favorite activities.  In general, however, she is in her element when she is on-the-go!  Whether its movies, restaurants, the YMCA, shopping, or bowling, Laren is on board and ready!  In her quieter times at home, she also enjoys music, yoga, doing word search puzzles, and helping around the house.

Speaking of home, the Guilford High School graduate now lives in Roscoe with her sister Kara, her brother-in-law Chris, and their children (Kahlee and Justen).  Laren absolutely loves spending time with her family (which also includes her brother Kevin) and her friends.  Among the special people in her life is her boyfriend Michael (profiled in yesterday’s Spotlight!), whom she has been dating for four years.

One of the things Laren takes great pride in is her job at Cor Mariae Nursing Home.  She has been employed there as a Kitchen Assistant for several years and really enjoys the time she spends with residents and other staff.  Her smile and happiness brighten their days and bring happiness to so many people!

Laren’s favorite activity at the Playhouse is GiGi’s Kitchen.  She also participates regularly in GiGi U and enjoyed taking part in the Portal Theatre program as well.  Laren’s sister Kara feels that GiGi’s has greatly impacted both Laren and her family.   “It gives her a safe space to be herself, make friends, and work on enhancing skills,” Kara stated. “The programs, staff, and volunteers are nothing short of amazing. They are such a vital part of this community and an incredible resource for so many. Thank you for contributing to the success and happiness of my beautiful sister!”  Thanks for sharing your sister with us, Kara!  We think Laren is pretty amazing, too!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 22

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… ROWEN

Born on September 21st, it seems fitting that this active, inquisitive 5-year-old’s “half birthday” falls on World Down Syndrome Day.  It’s nearly impossible to look at Rowen and not see the unbridled joy and the boundless possibilities that exist within him!

Living in Oregon, IL with mom, dad, and younger sister Adleigh, Rowen attends preschool at Oregon Elementary.  In the Covid universe, however, he is currently learning from home with his Grandma.  We imagine that Grandma sees that as one of the ONLY silver linings of Covid!

Speaking of learning, sign language plays an active role in the way Rowen learns and communicates, and he definitely knows how to get his point across when it comes to some of his favorite things.  For example, it’s difficult to deny his sweet tooth when he signs “cookie, please!” in conjunction with those gorgeous brown eyes and a smile that melts your heart!  He uses the same approach when he wants to ride in the truck with dad to pick up another one of his favorites, pizza!

If it’s true that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats his lady, his truck, and his dog, then Rowen has a great head start in life.  A little boy through and through, he loves anything and everything with wheels.  And, being the gentleman that he is, he routinely offers to drive his little sister Adleigh around the yard in their truck.  When it comes to dogs, Rowen is quite the helper with his puppy, Boo, and he always makes sure that Boo is doing exactly what he needs to be doing!

Rowen’s family has really enjoyed attending programs at GiGi’s Playhouse.  LMNOP rates as one of his favorites (mostly because of the music and dancing), in addition to the fun holiday parties.  Mom adds, “We love seeing so many friends at the holiday parties and we always appreciate the groups that come in to host. GiGi’s has been a great way for us to connect with other local parents and children.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 23

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… TAYLOR

They say you should watch out for the quiet ones!  In Taylor’s case, the surprise you get from the generally quiet 21-year-old is a fun and quirky sense of humor that pops up at unexpected times … and when it does, it usually makes your day!

Some of the things that “make Taylor’s day” include her favorite color (blue), her favorite food (eggs and sausage), and ANYTHING CHOCOLATE!  She likes art and frequently shares her carefully colored creations with friends and Playhouse staff.  Taylor also enjoys going swimming, singing, dancing, and making Tik Tok videos.  The Harlem High School graduate from the Class of 2018 tends to prefer pop music over other genres, and she LOVES to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

Taylor’s most favorite activity, however, is family game night.  If its Taylor’s night to pick and she chooses Uno Flip, you better watch out, because that’s her game!  If everyone was there for game night, they better make sure there are plenty of snacks on hand because Taylor has two teenage brothers (Logan and Joshua) as well as four step-siblings (Laney, Kassi, Braden, and Jake).

Taylor is a good friend to her classmates and is very helpful to Ms. Erin in the GiGi U classroom.  These parts of her personality would make her well suited for her dream job of working in a daycare.  However, Taylor is careful to point out that she is NOT interested in working at her mom’s home daycare!  LOL!

Taylor’s mom said GiGi U has been a great experience for her.  She says, “Taylor loves being around people, and GiGi U has given her the opportunity to socialize with new friends while providing endless resources for our family.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 24

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… MAELEE

If your parents nickname you “Warrior Princess,” you better be able to take on the world!  For five-year-old Maelee, that’s no problem!  This little girl is locked, loaded and ready to go!  When Maelee arrives at the Playhouse, she doesn’t walk in, she struts!  This is her place, and she is here to do big things! BAM!

Sometimes its hard to believe that all that energy is wrapped up in such a tiny little package.  This proud member of the future graduating Class of 2033 currently attends Donald C. Parker Early Education Center.  Maelee lives in Machesney Park with mom and dad and has three big brothers (Jeff, Kodie, and Nikalas).  She also has a niece (Caylyn), a nephew (Bentley), a dog (Corona), a cat (Loki) and a turtle (Elsa-Anna).

Its not much of a mystery where the name Elsa-Anna came from… like millions of kindergartners around the world, “Frozen 1 & 2” are Maelee’s favorite movies.  Taco rolls and pizza are her favorite foods, and her brothers are definitely her favorite people.   When she’s not busy fiercely taking on the world, Maelee also enjoys singing, dancing, acting out scenes from her favorite movies, playing with her babies, and helping in her garden.

Maelee and her family love attending programs and events at the Playhouse, but she most especially enjoys Tutoring with Ms. Erin and helping Ms. Stacey with jobs at her desk in the front office.  Maelee’s affinity for GiGi’s started before she was even born.  “We took a tour of GiGi’s when we were pregnant with Maelee,” explained her parents.  “When we were there, you could feel the love and we knew it was the right place for her.  It has helped her grow so much.  She wouldn’t be where she is today without the Playhouse.  It has given us so much support, and we have met so many new friends that we now consider family.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 25

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… CAYDEN

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  If that’s true, and you want to find your way into 15-year-old Cayden’s heart, you better come armed with Kit Kats and Airheads!  Cayden’s Playhouse Tutor, Brenda, found a special way to connect with him during Covid.   She mails him packages with books, games, and (you guessed it!) Kit Kats and Airheads to use as rewards when he wins the educational games they play during their virtual tutoring sessions.  Cayden says, “She’s the best and I love her.  I love it when we read Frozen together!” So cool!

When he’s not busy finding ways to acquire his favorite candy, the Sophomore at Hononegah High School loves to ride his bike, shoot hoops, play video games, cheer on his Chicago Bears, and fill up on chicken and mashed potatoes.  Like so many other teens, he also loves to sing and dance along with Tik Tok (especially to his favorite song “Savage Love” by Jason Derulo) … and this guy can seriously bust a move!

Cayden thoroughly enjoys being with his family (including his parents, siblings Braydon, Kayeleigh, and Maysea, nephew Kyson, and his dog Zander).  He’s also eagerly anticipating the birth of a new niece in February.  Some of Cayden’s best times are spent with Kyson playing Batman and Nerf guns, and with his cousin Christian who frequently comes to hang out with him.

The time Cayden spends role-playing with Kyson may come in handy in terms of training for his future.  His dream job is to be a police officer so he can “catch all the bad guys.”  Meanwhile, Cayden is very helpful around the house, especially making beds and vacuuming.  The world would benefit from a few less “bad guys,” and it can always use a few more “good guys” who know how to vacuum and make their beds!

In addition to tutoring, Cayden has also participated in Portal Theatre and GiGi’s Kitchen at the Playhouse.  Mom added, “The tutoring program has helped Cayden become a better and more confident reader.  He has met many friends through GiGi’s who make all the programs fun.  We always feel such overwhelming support at the Playhouse!”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 26

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… SAM

Say what you want, but you have to admire someone who sets a goal and sticks with it.  For years, 23-year-old Sam has traveled throughout the United States and Mexico in search of perfection … the perfect cheeseburger, that is!  We hope you find your “cheeseburger in paradise,” Sam!

Sam, who lives in Boone County but technically has a Rockford address (things that make you go hmmmmm…), graduated from Belvidere North High School in 2017.  He went on from there to do an internship at the Belvidere YMCA, and then graduated the following year from Project Search through Mercy Health System.  He was employed as a noon aide at Lincoln Elementary School until Covid hit, and he is enthusiastic about returning to work when the pandemic subsides.

Sam has two brothers (Chris and Jordan), and he also has a niece named Paislee, which officially makes him “Uncle Sam!”  He also has a “brother-from-another-mother,” his bestie, Carter.   Sam and Carter were born just one day apart in the same hospital, and they have been like brothers ever since.  They went to the same schools and even worked in the same place until the pandemic started.

One of Sam’s favorite things to do is socialize with his MANY friends in both Illinois and Florida.  He looks forward to an annual trip to Camp Able in Marco Island, FL.  As a community that aspires to celebrate diversity, Camp Able is described as “a gift of mutual respect and compassion wrapped up in silliness and love.”  Sam would like to live full-time in Florida at some point, perhaps working at the Crazy Flamingo on Marco Island.

At the Playhouse, Sam has enjoyed TeenTastics, Teen Time, GiGi’s Kitchen, and the occasional cookout.  He has also had a great time helping with golf outings, car washes, and lemonade stands.   It’s not surprising, however, that Sam’s favorite part of GiGi’s Playhouse is hanging out with all his friends!

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 27

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… VIOLET

Like the beautiful photographs of nature that she enjoys taking, there is so much of 15-year-old Violet that you might not see on your first glance.  Appearing quiet and shy on the surface, what lies beneath is actually a determined, conscientious, perceptive, and fiercely independent young lady.   You might also be surprised by a quick and witty sense of humor that sneaks up and catches you off guard!

A sophomore at Guilford High School, Violet always works hard and pushes herself to become her “best of all.”  An important part of her ability to achieve is her willingness to try new things, especially when hanging out with close friends Khali, Colleen, and Cara.   She HAS good friends because she knows how to BE a good friend, and she loves the quote by Gina Barreca that says, “It’s not that diamonds are a girls best friend, but it’s your best friends who are your diamonds.”

In her spare time, you are likely to find Violet catching up on the latest vlogs on YouTube, reading, doing activity books, or making art projects… probably while eating her favorite foods – pizza and fries!  She also enjoys babysitting and occasionally volunteering through her church to help with their soup kitchen and bible school.  One of her favorite hobbies is photography, and her dream job would involve turning that hobby into a career!

Family is also very important to Violet.  Her favorite people to spend time with (in additional to her BFF’s, of course!) are her sisters, Sylvia (17) and Evelyn (14), both of her grandmas, her mom, her dad, and her stepmom, Ashleigh.

At GiGi’s, Violet has had a great time participating in TeenTastics, Teen Time, Cheer Gems, Art Explosion, and GiGi’s Kitchen.  When asked about the Playhouse, Violet explained, “It impacts me and my family to know that I’m not the only one with Down syndrome, that I have a place to go to be with my friends who also have Down syndrome.  My family and I feel supported by the people at GiGi’s.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 28

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… KIEFER

Good news!  When 23-year-old Kiefer cashes in on his dream job of being a Super Model, his parents will already be prepared for the limelight.  They have already had a bit of practice because he’s kind of a celebrity at their campground, where they are simply known as “Kiefer’s parents!”  But don’t let his Hollywood persona fool you – this guy has a heart of gold and is much more interested in learning about people he meets than in talking about himself.  If Kiefer asks you about your birthday, pets, spouse, children, etc., you can bet that he will remember and ask about them the next time he sees you!

When he’s not busy bustin’ out his amazing dance moves for fans at the campground, the 2018 graduate of Jefferson High School might be found shooting hoops in the driveway, working out at Planet Fitness with his mom, watching movies (especially anything starring Kevin Hart or Duane Johnson), or cheering on his beloved Cubs or Bears.  He was a Special Olympian in baseball and basketball for several years and plays the role of “honorary team captain” when he goes to observe trap shooting with his stepdad.    Always eager to lend a hand, Kiefer is also an essential link in the family “food chain.” He helps with every phase including meal planning, shopping, cooking, eating (by far, his favorite component!), and emptying the dishwasher.

Kiefer’s favorite roles in life are those of son, brother, uncle, and boyfriend.  He enjoys having two sets of parents and two homes, all within a couple blocks of each other.  He has three older siblings (Michele, Mathew & Kelcey) and excels in the job of “big brother” to younger sister, Kassidy.   He is a caring boyfriend to his girlfriend of several years; a favorite Uncle of Dominic, Alissa, Camryn, and Mikayla; and dog dad extraordinaire to his canine companions, Izzie and Bud!

At the Playhouse, Kiefer loves hanging out with his crew at Friday Friends, but his favorite program is GiGi’s Kitchen, where he learned his “mad cooking skillz!”  His family adds, “GiGi’s has truly given Kiefer a place to belong and be himself.  With great programs and great people, it has given US a safe place that is always welcoming.”

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 29

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… LANDON

Like so many kids his age, music touches a chord in 10-year-old Landon and moves through him like nothing else.  On a recent visit to the Playhouse, Landon re-discovered the disco ball and the stage, and an impromptu concert ensued!  Lights off… disco ball on… air guitar crankin’… and he was belting out the lyrics of his favorite country music song, “Night Shift!”

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day details, stress, and BUSY-ness of life, and we forget what it feels like to dance like no one is watching.  Landon remembers…  and seeing the pure joy in him is a reminder that we all need to find our “inner air guitar champion” once in a while!

When Landon is not busy providing live entertainment for the masses, the 4th grader at Le-Win Elementary School enjoys football, jumping on the trampoline (As the picture below indicates, he is VERY good at jumping!), and watching movies, especially “Toy Story 4.”  He loves his Chicago Bears, and is always more than happy to demolish his fan favorites (ice cream and nachos) when they are offered! Living in Lena, IL with mom, dad, and his younger sister Ainsley (age 8),  he is always glad to lend a hand with cooking or offer his  “Mr. Fixit”  expertise on anything in need of repair.  Though he has obvious talents to draw from as a future chef or repairman, he hasn’t yet eliminated “Rock Star” from his list of potential careers!

Landon’s greatest joys come from the people in his life.  He and Ainsley are about as tight as two siblings can be, but there are two other social connections that land him squarely in his happy place.  Landon will light up whenever he gets to hang out with the all the cool guys at his school, but if you really want to see him shine, put him in a room with Landon W.   At the Playhouse, everyone knows who you are talking about if you mention “the two Landon’s.”  Landon R. and Landon W. were born just four months apart, and the partners in crime are in their element when they are together!

Though his time at the Playhouse is a bit limited due to distance, Landon has greatly enjoyed all the holiday parties and gatherings.  His family has been grateful for the opportunities to meet new friends and experience such a sense of inclusion.

DOWN SYNDROME ACCEPTANCE MONTH – DAY 30

IN THE SPOTLIGHT… CARTER

Being that today is the day before Halloween, 23-year-old Carter might be doing his best to con his mom into watching a scary movie with him.  He knows they are not her thing, but he thinks it’s hilarious when she screams!  Though they lack the added bonus of parental screaming, Carter’s preferred movies are usually Disney flicks.  In fact, his dream job would be to work at Walt Disney World.

Carter has worked hard to put himself in a favorable position to land that job at Disney someday.  After graduating from Belvidere North High School in 2017, he attended a two -year program at the University of Iowa called the UI Reach Program.   He graduated in 2019 with a career focus in hospitality, which sounds like a perfect fit for a career with Disney.  Meanwhile, he works as a noon aide at Lincoln Elementary School in Belvidere with his lifetime best friend, Sam.  Recently laid off due to Covid, he is looking forward to returning when in-person learning resumes.

In addition to hanging out with his bestie (Sam), Carter also loves spending time with his mom, dad, and two younger sisters (Carlee and Katy).  He is always there to cheer his sisters on as they participate in basketball (Carlee) and competition cheerleading (Katy).  With 10 years of competing in the Special Olympics (bocce, swimming, basketball, snowshoe, and track)  and over 40 medals under his belt , Carter knows how important it is to have a solid fan base!!

On any given day, you are likely to find Carter riding his bike, exercising (he values health and fitness), cooking his own meals or helping to prepare family meals, and listening to a wide variety of music (he Is rarely seen without his ear pods!).  He also loves attending Bears, Cubs, and Blackhawks games and tailgating before games to cheer on his alumni, the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.

This outgoing, confident young man also enjoys the time he spends at GiGi’s Playhouse, where his favorite programs are GiGi’s Kitchen and Friday Friends.  When asked what else people should  know about him, he responds, “I would like to learn to drive, move to Florida, and get my own apartment… and I’m AWESOME!”  LOL!  We couldn’t agree more, Carter!

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