Volunteers are pivotal to our successes and achievements. Without YOU we would not be able to offer our free and purposeful programs to our families and the community.
We also know that volunteering at our playhouses and the other playhouses around the country can have a huge positive impact on our volunteers – whether they spread acceptance in their community, help to fundraise, encourage others to volunteer and/or contribute to changing the way the world views Down syndrome.
In 2019, Sophia became a new volunteer at our Playhouse. She volunteered at our Teen and Young Adult programs, and quickly demonstrated enthusiasm, determination and generosity towards our participants and developed strong relationships with all the participants. She has used her experience and growing friendship with our participants to inspire her to write a feature article for her school paper, which has won her an award for Student Newspapers online.
Here is Sophia’s article in full:
The day he was born, Raymond Frost’s family knew he was different. But Ray will be the first person to show you – both through his kind and spontaneous nature, and the advocacy he engages in during conversations about Down syndrome – that being different is not a barrier to overcome, but a facet of oneself to embrace.
“I know [with] Down syndrome, it’s scary, but it’s also okay to admit that that’s who you are,” he told me. “For me, having Down syndrome, I’m okay with. There are some things I can do, and some things that I can’t do. My grandmother told me, ‘Anything is possible.’ When you put your heart to it, and make your dreams come true, anything is possible.”
And Ray is someone who has a lot of dreams. One of the first things he’ll tell you about himself is how much he loves to cook. Although he’s been part of the work force since high school, almost 25 years ago, Ray wants to attend culinary school.
“One day, I dream of having my own restaurant,” he said. An important note: it will be half-American, half-Italian.
Masters exists in a bit of an able-bodied bubble. By nature of the campus, sprawling across five main buildings with multiple flights of stairs, the school is not accessible. Students with visible disabilities aren’t, themselves, visible at Masters.
Because of this, I never would have met Ray without volunteering at GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center in Ardsley. He was playing ping pong, singing along to the music playing over the speakers and undeniably the life of the party. (“My name is Raymond, but you can call me Ray!”)
Ray attended the GiGi’s Playhouse gathering with his friends and roommates, Yaniv and Jason. The three of them have an enduring friendship – Yaniv says they’re like brothers. They’ve lived in the same home together in Hartsdale for 19 years. The three are hardly ever apart.
“You have one life to live, you might as well enjoy what you have now. I’m happy I have GiGi’s Playhouse and my roommates. If us three, who have Down syndrome, can live together for 18, 19 years, through good times, bad times, anything is possible,” he said.
Ray describes himself as “easy to talk to” – he radiates positive energy and laughter, but he’s not a stranger to challenge. He struggled to read, write, and do math in school and relied on the support of his family and special education teachers to learn.
“Now, I can do all of those things,” he said, with pride in his voice. “In my life, I’ve had my ups and downs, too. I’m not scared.”
When I asked Ray what he wished everyone knew about disabled people, he spoke with no hesitation.
“Whoever has a disability or Down syndrome, they have the same goals, same dreams, same future, feelings, and emotions [as everyone]. They have a right to speak.”
Ray isn’t shy either, when discussing his relationship with racial identity.
“I like being Black… I’m happy and proud to be an African American man.” He said, adding that he believes he must be comfortable with who he is in order to help others, especially those who are disabled.
Ray, Yaniv and Jason had the opportunity to star in the 2017 film “Far From the Tree”, based on the New York Times bestselling book by Andrew Sullivan. The film explores the relationship between parent and child, particularly in regard to differences in ability. Yaniv said it was “amazing” to see his face on the big screen and reaffirmed the value of representation.
Ray doesn’t like to see his accomplishments – whether it’s his talent at cooking, 25 years of experience in the workforce, lifelong friendships, self-reliance, or black belt in karate– as happening in spite of his Down syndrome. They are, like his disability, important and valuable parts of his identity.
“Sometimes I have doubts about having Down syndrome, but then I understand, Down syndrome is not a weakness. Down syndrome is not a weakness,” Ray said.
“Some people will look at me. Wherever I go with my family, people always say I look like somebody else,” he said, referring to his facial differences. “But that’s a good thing, because I am Raymond.”
His proudest accomplishment is being happy: “I’m happy to have family and friends. I’m happy to have been living on my own for twenty years now. I’m happy.”
He added, “I’m proud to have Down syndrome. Because if I didn’t have Down syndrome, I wouldn’t have met you and I wouldn’t have met all my friends. I wouldn’t be me.”
Raymond paused, contemplating his final words, patient and honest: “I think I am wonderful.”
By Sophia Van Beek, Tower
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