Down Syndrome Changed Our Lives for the Best
The Yelenosky family provides monthly activities for teens with Down syndrome and their families at GiGi’s Playhouse in Aurora.
Samantha Yelenosky was a surprise arrival to her family.
Her sister, Jackie, and brother, Mitch, were 11 and 12 years old, respectively, when Samantha was born five years ago. In preparing for their baby sister, there was “much anticipation,” Mitch said.
Samantha was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after her birth. At first, Jackie and Mitch said they were really scared.
“I didn’t know what her life would be like,” Jackie Yelenosky said. “I thought that this would affect my entire life and her entire life,” Mitch Yelenosky said.
Jackie is now a sophomore at Bolingbrook High School. Mitch is a junior. Samantha is in kindergarten, and “smarter than half the kids her age.”
“She’s so funny and she’s really smart,” Jackie said. “If you tell her something once she’ll remember it. She knows Spanish from our mom…Just because you have Down syndrome, it doesn’t stop you in any way. She can do anything.”
Mitch and his mother, Marissa Yelenosky, both said Samantha has changed their perceptions of others.
“It’s changed our life for the best,” Marissa said. “It’s made my children more compassionate, more tolerant.”
“We can’t look at other people now and judge them,” Mitch said. “We understand as a family much better than before the differences in humanity that we see and engage with every day.”
Marissa Yelenosky first brought Samantha to GiGi’s Playhouse as a baby. There, she met other parents who had children with Down syndrome.
“It was so welcoming,” Marissa said. “I didn’t feel alone.”
GiGi’s Playhouse provides awareness and educational centers, where those with Down syndrome and their families can find resources, specialized teaching and support in a safe environment. There are locations across the country, including one in Aurora near Fox Valley Mall.
Not long after Samantha first participated in GiGi’s Playhouse, Mitch and Jackie decided they wanted to volunteer as a family.
Now, the family volunteers at the location’s monthly Teen Tastic program. “We thought it would be really great to volunteer and see the activities that one day (Samantha) is going to do herself,” Jackie said.
Marissa Yelenosky is a Teen Tastic program leader. She plans monthly activities for teens with Down syndrome, plus their families and high school volunteers. Last Friday, Mitch taught a karate class with Dave Smith, a Plainfield resident who has led the GiGi’s Playhouse Karate Kickers for two years.
Besides karate lessons, Teen Tastic participants have enjoyed visits from a balloon artist and entrepreneur, a cartoonist and a K-9 officer.
In addition to volunteering, the family has been involved in fundraising, and Jackie and Mitch have served on the Teen Tastic board.
“We have so much love to offer,” Marissa Yelenosky said. “My wanted to be able to share that. We knew we could help.”
Volunteering for GiGi’s Playhouse has given her a new perspective, Jackie Yelenosky said.
“They’re just so happy all the time,” Jackie said. “It’s great to see how nothing really bothers them. They’re so quick to smile and hug.”
“We appreciate life more, Marissa Yelenosky said. “It’s opened us up to new friends. We’ve met more people this way and seen how generous and loving people can be.”
Marissa said she wants parents of children with Down syndrome to know that Gigi’s Playhouse exists.
“You don’t need to be afraid,” she said. “It’s not always easy, but it’s a beautiful experience.”
Editor’s note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.