Carey’s Corner: I have a Voice

Posted By on January 2, 2020

Speaking up for the Down syndrome community

“It was kind of sad. Nobody celebrated her birth. For me, as a first-time mom, it was hard. I felt very isolated.”

When Jennifer Gage gave birth to her first child, Kaitlyn, it wasn’t a “typical” new-mom experience. Kaitlyn was diagnosed with Down syndrome, and at the time, 23 years ago, there was far less knowledge, acceptance and awareness. For Jennifer Gage, the world was spinning.

That is until she found her voice.

“I wanted to give Kaitlyn a typical experience,” Gage told me.  

So she set off as a determined young mother to do just that.  

Gage would soon find out about a national organization called Gigi’s Playhouse. The founder, Chicago resident Nancy Gianni, calls herself the “Chief Belief Officer.” She’s been named a CNN Hero and has been featured on national television, including “The Today Show.” On the Gigi’s Playhouse website, Gianni wrote: “When my daughter Gigi was born, I thought my family’s life would change forever. About an hour after she was born, the doctors suspected she had Down syndrome. Panic was welling up inside me, but I was afraid for anyone to see it. As soon as my husband and I made eye contact, I said, ‘If anyone can handle this, we can.’”

Both Gianni and Gage talk about the pain they felt when people came to visit after the babies were born.  

“There were hugs of sympathy, not congratulations,” Gianni said. “They would tiptoe toward the bassinet and seem afraid to look inside to see what she would look like.”

Since the birth of Gianni’s daughter, and the founding of Gigi’s Playhouse, the nonprofit organization has expanded to 46 cities with the primary mission to “change the way the world views Down syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all.”

Phoenix mom Jennifer Gage no longer felt alone.  

As her voice grew more commanding, she began to advocate not only for her daughter but for the thousands of children with Down syndrome in the Phoenix area.

“They really can’t speak for themselves, so we have to be their advocates,” Gage told me when we sat down for an on-camera interview. “I think in today’s environment, we have to take care of one another, and especially if you have diminished capacity, you are at increased risk. We need to step up and take care of these young kids and adults and become their voice.”

We all have it in us to find our voice. I’ve seen it happen in the most remarkable ways over the years as I’ve covered tragedy and triumph as a news reporter and anchor.  

Our voices are our strength and our power. We can do great things with them. We can inspire change, speak the truth and question wrongdoing. We can lift others up if we choose. But how we use our voice is, ultimately, a choice for all of us. 

Gage found herself on a mission to use her voice powerfully, growing Gigi’s platform in Phoenix and providing help — and, perhaps most importantly, hope.

“They want, and they hope for and dream about, the same things that we do,” Gage said. “A lot of people with Down syndrome recognize that they are different. We are busy trying to get them ready for the world.” 

On February 14, 2015, Gigi’s Phoenix opened its doors, becoming the 21st playhouse nationwide. It provides free educational and therapeutic programs to individuals with Down syndrome from birth through adulthood, as well as to their families and community of supporters.   

Gage has seen a spike in support.  

“Every year, we grow so much,” she said. “The first year at the gala we had 100 attendees and raised a little over $35,000, and last year we had about 500 attendees and raised about half a million dollars.”

It’s one thing to realize you have a voice; it’s another to decide how and why you are going to use it.

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Carey Pena

About Carey Pena

Carey Peña is an Emmy award winning journalist who majored in broadcast journalism at Arizona State University.