Valley residents with Down Syndrome take steps toward independence

Above: Photo courtesy of STARSAZ. Business News | 14 Nov |

The disability someone lives with is just a fraction of what shapes him or her as an individual. 

No two are the same; even so, they may feel limited to opportunities due to a lack of understanding in society and a lack of resources as a result.  But two Valley nonprofits are aiming to change that.

With resources and programs offered at GiGi’s Playhouse and Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services, people with Down Syndrome or other disabilities are taking steps toward their independence and connecting with their communities.

GiGi’s Playhouse and GiGi U

Gigi’s Playhouse Phoenix recently opened GiGi University, a 15-week program where adults with Down Syndrome learn and work on their communication, health, money management and public speaking skills.  The program builds on skills learned in GiGi Prep, the 6- to 8-week prerequisite course that aims to motivate participants to work and grow.  The prep course can be repeated based on the participant’s want or need.

Participants learn how to prepare meals and make healthy choices in the school kitchen, and the team works with students on making eye-contact and body language.  The course takes a fun approach to teaching and learning, and the participants and family alike are enjoying it.

“I think the biggest feedback that I have received is the communication,” said Christel Baker, the director of adult learning. “Because a lot of them have been more isolated, or when they are out and about, they hadn’t been given the skills to interact with others.  So we really focus on eye contact and body language.”

Once students have graduated the university, they have the option to continue with a studio internship at the GiGi Cafe, which will open early next year sometime after the university has its first graduating class.

Because many participants and their families live far from the Scottsdale location, GiGi’s Playhouse also looks to connect families with other opportunities within their own communities to work.

“Whether it be working with a fitness company, a bank, a credit union, a retail store, or anything,” said Stephanie Gage, the president of GiGi’s Playhouse Phoenix location. “We’re really looking for face-forward opportunities for them.”

Additionally, GiGi’s Playhouse in Chicago is currently piloting a program, called GiGi Professionals, that hones participants’ computer and office skills.

“Self-advocacy and having them speak up for Down Syndrome and what their abilities are is another thing that we are going toward,” Gage said.

STARS’ Vocational Programs

STARS offers two vocational programs: A center-based vocational training program, and a group-supported employment program.

In the training program, participants operate out of STARS with a team of instructors who train and offer support.  The program, which pays participants, aims to build confidence and help develop invaluable skills, all in a comfortable environment.

Individuals can go through the program on their own time.  STARS’ goal is to see that they are always growing and moving out of their comfort zone, according to Program Director Jules Hyde.

For the group-supported employment program, the work will be off-site at a location elsewhere participants work directly with the community. 

“We have two customers: The participant, first and foremost, to garner them the skills that they would need to be successful in the field independently,” said Hyde, who directs the group-supported employment program.   “Our other customer is obviously also the locations, because it takes a lot of heart and a lot of understanding and a lot of courage for a location to open up their doors to a program like ours.”

A community job coach will work with participants on site and checks in with the location in order to gage how the employee is doing, and whether they still need to check in.  If the employee is excelling at his or her job and the employer is content, the coach may stop visiting altogether.

“We focus on the individual’s abilities that they can really excel at and try to find that perfect glove fit for a certain task or a certain location out in the community,” Hyde said.

Work opportunities vary for each program. In the center-based training program, participants will work for businesses like Cox Communications and Hospice of the Valley.  The group-supported employment program works with several locations around the Valley, such as HonorHealth, Fry’s, Chik-Fil-A, the Scottsdale Fire Department, and more.

STARS works with individuals with Down Syndrome, Crohn’s, cerebral palsy and other disabilities.

Inclusion

No two people are alike, and that is evident in the disability community.  Each individual has a dream, different interests and excel in different areas.  The nonprofits look to break down stereotypes and change the societal view on individuals with disabilities, especially in the workforce.

For Baker, this means placing students in jobs that fit their interests and letting people know that they can do so much more for their communities and employers than bag groceries.

  “They all can contribute at different places,” Baker said.  “Why tell them there are these two job choices they can pick when they all have their own hopes and they all have their strengths and weaknesses?”

Already, she said, there are participants who have great office skills, or show a budding interest in hospitality. 

As society evolves, Gage, whose granddaughter has Down Syndrome, said that she’s experienced more parents work to include their children with disabilities in everything that they do –and they won’t take no for an answer.

“Parents have to fight for those things, and they are,” Gage said.  “They’re doing it very successfully.  They’re getting their kids ready to be included from an earlier stage than maybe in the past.”

The programs give participants the space to grow their skills and share them with their communities, often surprising others with their gifts.  In fact, they show so much talent, they exceed even their parents’ expectations, according to Hyde.

The disability community has the ability, and everyone can benefit from including them, Hyde said.

  “Every employer, whether you’re SpaceX or an elementary school, would benefit from having an individual whose passionate about those things for their location there,” he said. “And to discredit an individual just because they may or may not have some challenges, or may or may not look or sound like you, is only doing you a disservice.”

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