Pacific Beach’s Gigi’s Playhouse co-hosts Down syndrome celebration to remind families they are not alone

Dean Jaskiw, 3, plays the drums at the World Down Syndrome Day celebration on Sunday.
Dean Jaskiw, 3, plays the drums with members of Resounding Joy, a nonprofit music therapy organization, at the World Down Syndrome Day celebration on Sunday.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hundreds gathered at Nobel Athletic Fields and Recreation Center in University City to celebrate World Down Syndrome Day and gain community support


San Diego resident Katie Smith didn’t know anyone with Down syndrome when she found out her own unborn child had the extra chromosome that causes the disorder.

But Smith said she learned very quickly she was not alone and was one of hundreds who gathered Sunday at Nobel Athletic Fields and Recreation Center in University City to celebrate Monday’s annual World Down Syndrome Day.

“As soon as you find a group and link into the community, you see that they’re just like any other baby, from any other family,” the 44-year-old said. “They just have an extra chromosome, but parenting is still parenting.”

Sunday’s event, hosted by GiGi’s Playhouse San Diego, Down Syndrome Action and the Down Syndrome Association of San Diego, featured live entertainment, a DJ, performances, activities and volunteers dressed as movie characters.

March 21st was chosen as World Down Syndrome Day because the third copy of the chromosome 21 causes the most common form of the disorder.

Event organizers aimed to not only raise awareness of Down syndrome, but also allow families to come together, feel a sense of community and learn about programs and services that support those with the disorder lead successful lives.

Smith said she is now connected and meets regularly with nearly 60 mothers who all have children with Down syndrome.

Crystal Anderson, 37, is part of the group. The Poway resident said she began hosting Zoom calls to help mothers who felt isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, and last year, began coordinating park gatherings throughout the county.

“We just want to let moms who are expecting or who just had a baby with Down syndrome know that there is support for you and for all of the emotions you might go through,” Anderson said. “Our group just provides a great visualization for what your life can look like, which is very similar to everyone else’s life.”

GiGi’s Playhouse, which co-hosted the event, is a Pacific Beach-based organization that provides free therapeutic and educational programs for those with Down syndrome.

Valerie Schlieder, 24, said she approached the organization last year with an idea for a course that teaches employment skills to adults with Down syndrome. Schlieder said created the course as part of her doctorate degree in occupational therapy.

“My sister has Down syndrome and she is 26, and I just noticed that after they graduate from high school, there’s not a lot of programing for adults,” Schlieder said. “That’s especially true when it comes to meaningful employment.”

The now five-week course, which concludes next week, teaches employment skills, such as time management, independence, organization and self-advocacy.

“They are valuable employees. They’re loyal employees, and they will work hard,” Schlieder said. “Giving them opportunities is really important and it should happen more often than it does.”

Several students enrolled in the course said they were learning valuable skills they could apply toward jobs they wanted in the future.

Brooklyn Husar, 22, said she learned independence and improved her organizational skills. She said wants to work with marine animals.

Vann Smith, 24, is also participating in the program and attended the event with his parents Leslie and Tim.

He said he wants to take what he learned in the course and be a babysitter for his nieces and nephews.

Vann Smith currently works at the Bishops Storehouse, a food pantry, and said he previously worked with Computers 2 Kids, where he helped re-install the operating systems of donated computers, which are then refurbished and given to low-income families.

Leslie Smith said Sunday’s event is great for all families but even more important for parents of young children with Down syndrome.

“They can see someone Vann’s age and know it’s going to be OK,” she said. “They can connect and realize that it’s a good life. It’s just different.”

Along with Gigi’s Playhouse, two other organizations co-hosted the event.

Down Syndrome Action is an organization that identifies unmet needs of those with the disorder and helps families find solutions, and the Down Syndrome Association of San Diego aims to enhance the quality of life for people with Down syndrome.