‘You’re so kind for hanging out with them!’ These were my friends. I wasn’t doing anything special.’: Teen gives back to Down syndrome community, ‘I want to make the world a better place’

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“I was 5 years old when I first met someone with a disability. There was a boy with autism in my kindergarten class, and something in me was immediately drawn to him. We quickly became best friends, and I even got to go to occupational therapy with him a few times! Even though he moved schools after first grade, that friendship will stay with me forever. Each year of elementary school, it seemed I had a friend who looked or acted just a little bit differently than me, which was awesome! I would get so confused when teachers or parents told me, ‘You’re so kind for hanging out with them!’ These were my friends, and I wasn’t doing anything special for getting to know them. Would you tell me I was such a great person for hanging out with my typically developing friends? It should be the same for people with disabilities!

Courtesy of Reilly Cate

I was so excited to get to middle school, as there would be so many more opportunities for me to be around people with disabilities. I got involved with Best Buddies and finally felt like I had found my people. The joy I saw from my new friends was contagious! In sixth grade, before I had even gotten super involved with Best Buddies, my teacher asked us to write what we wanted to do when we were older. I wrote, ‘Have a child with Down syndrome,’ which was crazy because I didn’t even really know what Down syndrome was and I had only ever met one person who had it. My classmates told me that wasn’t possible. After all, you can’t plan how many chromosomes your child will have, to which I replied, ‘I’m going to adopt!’ I didn’t understand the impact of my words at that moment, but looking back, it was incredible.

Courtesy of Reilly Cate

The summer after that, as I was about to enter seventh grade, my dad and I were walking around a shopping center when we found GiGi’s Playhouse. We went inside to find out more and learned GiGi’s is a network of Down Syndrome Achievement Centers that provide free, therapeutic, educational, and career training programs for individuals with Down syndrome of all ages and their families. Of course, this completely rocked my world, and I went home to find out all I could about Down syndrome. How had I never known that this place existed?! A few weeks later I went to volunteer at my very first program, a back-to-school open play where I was able to meet and hang out with some new friends. I was in awe of all that GiGi’s was doing for these families and wanted to be around this community as much as I could. I enthusiastically signed up to volunteer for every program my schedule would allow and began to spend two to three nights a week at GiGi’s. One of my favorite parts of these early days was I got to volunteer with a cooking club with participants that were my age; they were my peers, and it was so much fun to get to know them! I not only got to be around these middle schoolers with Down syndrome at this program, but I also got to meet another awesome boy.

Courtesy of Reilly Cate
Courtesy of Reilly Cate

Hayden was 3 years old when I first met him and had recently been adopted. His mom, Kate, worked at GiGi’s as the program coordinator, so they were at every program I volunteered at. I would get to GiGi’s early just to play with Hayden, and we became inseparable. I looked forward to seeing him every time I went to GiGi’s, and little did I know just how important he would become to me. I kept volunteering with a variety of programs, and intentionally chose programs where I would get to be with Hayden. GiGi’s introduced me to a few other local nonprofit organizations that supported individuals with Down syndrome and other disabilities, so I got involved with those as well. Basically, anywhere I could be around people with Down syndrome, I was!

Fast forward about a year and a half, and I got to attend my very first GiGi’s Playhouse gala, their main fundraising event of the year. I was shocked to receive an award for my advocacy work within the Down syndrome community and was even more surprised when it was presented to me on a big stage by Hayden’s mom, Kate.

Courtesy of Reilly Cate
Courtesy of Reilly Cate

It was one of the best nights of my life and shifted my whole mindset about volunteering as I realized I really was an advocate who could change the world for my friends. Around this time, I also got to be on the news, telling my community about GiGi’s Playhouse and introducing them to Hayden. After these two things, doors just kept opening and I had the coolest opportunities to shout the worth of my friends with Down syndrome.

Now let’s fast forward again, to summer 2020. It was a hard year for all of us, but for me, the greatest gift was getting to spend so much time with Hayden. At this point, his mom no longer worked at GiGi’s, but we still hung out outside of that and went to all sorts of community events together. This past summer, I was able to babysit him about once a week, which was the most fun I had had in a long time! Being around him so much got me thinking— this Down syndrome community had given me so much, now what could I do to give back? In October, as I was praying about all of this, the idea of sending welcome home baskets to children with Down syndrome who were recently adopted came to me.

Courtesy of Reilly Cate

You see, in the Down syndrome community, there are quite a few organizations that send welcome baskets to infants with Down syndrome, but when a child is adopted, like Hayden was at 3 years old, they don’t qualify for these programs. I wanted to make sure these children were equally celebrated and welcomed into the Down syndrome community, just as all of the babies are! In November, I sent out my very first welcome home basket to a baby girl who had just come home from Ukraine. I called this little project ‘The Trium Tribe.’ There’s a phrase in the Down syndrome community, ‘omne trium perfectum,’ which loosely translates to everything that is perfect comes in threes. Down syndrome is caused by a third copy of the 21st chromosome, and so what better way to tie in the ‘three’ of the Ds community with the ‘tribe’ it takes to raise a child?

Courtesy of Reilly Cate

Since then, we have sent out 12 welcome home baskets to children from all over the world, and just launched a virtual Bible study group for women who have adopted or are in the process of adopting a child with Down syndrome. Our baskets consist of a handmade minky blanket, wooden scripture block, book exclusive to The Trium Tribe, and lots of more gifts that have been donated by awesome small businesses. Our book, ’21 Things I’ve Learned From Down Syndrome’ was compiled by me when we first started out a few months ago, and it features 21 individuals with Down syndrome and what their loved ones have learned from them. (21 people for the 21st chromosome, get it?) In the future, I have big goals to offer grants for families in the process of adopting a child with Down syndrome and partnering with lots of other organizations and businesses that are making the world a better place for people with disabilities. Until then, I’ll just keep sending out baskets, leading Bible studies, and attempting to finish high school!”

Courtesy of Reilly Cate

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Reilly Cate from the USA. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

Read more stories about the Down syndrome community here:

‘The nurse handed my daughter back. I instantly noticed her teeny tiny ears. ‘Do you think she has IT?’ I looked at my husband in fear.’: Mom of 3 births baby with Down syndrome, ‘She is the most amazing human being I’ve ever met’

‘Is he ok?’ I was afraid to say the words. I never told a soul about my feelings, not even my husband.’: Mom births son with Down syndrome, ‘I am so thankful for his perfect 47 chromosomes’

‘My principal said, ‘I’m adding a boy to your class. He’s from foster care and has Down syndrome.’ I felt this tug on my heart. ‘I want to take him home.’: Single mom, kindergarten teacher adopts down syndrome student

‘She’s in heart failure.’ I’d most likely never get to meet her. We could deliver our stillborn baby.’: Woman gives birth to high risk Down syndrome baby, ‘She defies all odds’

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