2020 was a year of unknowns. What I took away from it was how much people stood up for others. We checked in on our neighbors, we clapped for essential workers and we marched to make sure the world knew Black Lives Matter. 2021 was going to be the comeback year. We were going to find our new normal, navigating different comfort levels and slowly emerging as a united community.
Unfortunately, the first half of this year has not felt like that. It’s been divisive, confrontational and has lacked empathy. We’ve seen an increase in hate crimes including attacks on the Asian population. Unfortunately, the Down syndrome population has not gone unscathed.
As some of you know, I’ve dedicated the last five years of my life to help start GiGi’s Playhouse San Diego, a Down Syndrome Achievement Center. A center that not only provides free, purposeful programming, but also advocates for inclusion. My oldest daughter was my drive and made volunteering for this project my passion. We finally opened our doors in 2018 and it became the 37th location in the United States and also the first in California.
A few weeks ago, GiGi’s Playhouse Sacramento opened it’s doors. It’s the 54th location and 2nd in California. A week after their grand opening, it was vandalized. My heart hurt as I learned the news.
How is it possible that in 2021, we are still fighting for our children’s right to exist? To be a part of society. They’ve proved themselves. They have shown the world that all they need is an opportunity. An opportunity to show their worth. An opportunity so that others can see what we see: amazing human beings who have so much t o contribute to this world – their inventiveness, their smarts, their kindness, their honesty, their strength!
I was observing my 7 mth. old the other day. She’s my second and does not have Down syndrome. She was trying to sit up for the first time. She propped herself up, pushed out with one arm, and there it was. She did not waver, did not fall back and since then sits up with the same ease every time. This brought me back to the countless hours spent with my oldest daughter and Mary, our amazing physical therapist.
My girl worked so hard to accomplish something that came so easily to her baby sister. This did not make her less. It did not make her more. It made her a hard-working, determined little girl who needs to work thrice as hard as you and me when her body betrays her. And she does it, most days with a smile. She overcomes these hurdles and continues to make gains. She concentrates, slowing her speech, over-pronouncing, and repeating her words, so there is no doubt left that she would prefer ice cream for breakfast (which of course she doesn’t get).
And we can deal with this. Like she says, “No problem, mom!”.
What I can’t deal with, though, is her having to prove herself to others. Having to prove her worth. Having to prove that she also deserves to be in this Earth, in her community, in her school included with her typical peers, and in the workforce as a contributing member of society.
She has to fight to receive proper medical care so that in a pandemic, she is not denied a hospital bed just because she has an extra chromosome. Or if she ever needs an organ transplant, she’s not denied from being placed on the waiting list. Having to prove that her life is just as valuable as yours – time and time again.
But I guess I have to deal with it. And not only will I deal with it, but I will dedicate my life to make sure that in her lifetime, Humankind actually embraces kindness. Because that’s all it takes. Kindness leads to empathy which leads to acceptance.
So please, do your part to turn things around in 2021. We still have a chance to make this the comeback year. All you have to do is be kind.
By Stephanie Rais-Ortiz, GiGi’s Playhouse San Diego Board Member
In an effort to make the world a more accepting place for individuals of all abilities, GiGi’s Playhouse is aiming to unite 1 Million supporters in a physical and social MOVEment for Acceptance! Are you up for the challenge?
Join us for our 4th annual Donut Run, a drive-thru celebration in the GiGi’s Playhouse San Diego parking lot. Decorate your car, wave to friends, and enjoy a donut with your GiGi’s Family!
On Saturday, June 5 from 9am – 12pm
You can donate or create a team here: