SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – 28-year-old Jarad Okun has a job, his own apartment, a girlfriend and Down Syndrome. Okun is a shining example of people with Down Syndrome being given equal opportunities and accepting the challenge.
At age 13, Okun came to Gigi’s Playhouse, a volunteer based center that focuses on purposeful programs and global acceptance for individuals with Down Syndrome.
“When I was born my mom was terrified, but look at me… fortunately I’m still kicking and breathing,” Okun said jokingly.
Heather Rodriguez, the marketing chair for Gigi’s Playhouse, reflected on the center’s importance for new and expecting mothers.
“A lot of expecting parents or brand new parents who had a birth diagnosis, they’re peeking in on our website, they’re looking at what’s this all about, they’re scrolling instagram trying to find that place of hope,” she said.
For many, Gigi’s Playhouse is that safe haven. Rodriguez said individuals never age out of Gigi’s Playhouse. There are intervention programs for children a few months old, to career training programs for adults 18 and older.
Gigi U is a service designed to help adults with Down Syndrome learn valuable skills and achieve their goals. The ultimate goal is for these individuals to progress into the workforce and live independently.
For two years, Okun has worked in food services at a local school. Okun loves being able to work and values respect in his workplace.
“Respect doesn’t just come to you,” Okun said. “You have to bring it out to the world and have them bring it back to you.”
Unfortunately, not everyone who meets Okun shows him this same respect, but that is not what he focuses on.
“A lot of people out in the world are really mean and vicious… When someone tries to tear myself down, I think of the things I do have and that I’m capable and have control of,” Okun said.
Okun now serves on the board of managers at Gigi’s Playhouse and does volunteer work at the center.
On Saturday, April 30, Gigi’s Playhouse is coming together with the Syracuse Community for the GigiFit Acceptance Challenge.
Participants can register on their website to join the 5k, 1 Mile Inspirational Walk or the Kids Dash for Down Syndrome. This physical and social movement for acceptance will take place at Willow Bay Park in Liverpool, New York.