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'I Have a Voice'

Traveling exhibit features local children with Down syndrome, their families

“I Have A Voice.”

Not only is it the name of the traveling gallery presented by the Des Moines’ Gigi’s Playhouse and local photographer Amy Doerring that soon will be coming to Newton, but it’s exactly what the project manifested in three local families.

The Davises, Simons and Bratlands all share one common experience in that they have children who were born with Down syndrome and have received support throughout the years via Gigi’s Playhouse.

“Gigi was a girl who had Down syndrome, and her family started these playhouses,” Doerring said. “There are 16 across the country, with one in Des Moines. Families can go there for education, the children can go there for education and it’s there for social opportunities as well, because if it’s your brother or sister (with Down syndrome), your life is changed; everyone’s life is changed.”

Gigi’s Playhouse was founded 10 years ago in Hoffman Estates, Ill.; the Des Moines playhouse has been in operation since 2010 under director Megan Christofferson.

“I’ve been photographing (Megan’s son) Karsten since he was young, so Megan called and said, ‘We’re going to do this display, would you shoot it?”

Initial talks in February of 2012 turned into a busy three days in Doerring’s studio shooting portraits of the children and a handful of adults — 42 altogether — chosen to be featured in the “I Have A Voice” exhibit, which will make stops at Community Heights Alliance Church, the Center for Arts and Artists and Newton Senior High School over the course of the next month.

While the initial idea for the display came from projects other Gigi’s Playhouses across the country had fabricated, Doerring put a personal spin on the photographs she shot for the exhibit.

“There’s kind of been a style where they’ll take a portrait and tell a bit about each kid,” Doerring said. “But something I have all my seniors do is to write a word or phrase on their hand that describes them or defines them, and then I photograph them with their hand out.

“When Megan and I were talking, I said, ‘What if we photograph their hands and think about a word that describes each one?’ and it was just a beautiful part of each photo. We have a girl whose hand says ‘popular’ and one whose says ‘dancing queen.’ It’s just a beautiful way to tell a story about their personalities.”

While Doerring’s work — all volunteer — was essential to the completion of the exhibit, she insists that, “this project really isn’t about me at all, it’s about the families.”

Families like the Davises, made up of Andrea and Norm and their five children. The youngest, Natalie, was born with Down syndrome among other health complications just over a year ago.

“At Gigi’s, there’s just this feeling of a big family and a big sisterhood with the wives, so we don’t feel like we’re alone,” Andrea said. “After the diagnosis, all my dreams for my little girl were crushed. They told me I could have the same dreams, I’d just have to tweak them a little bit. They helped me realize life was going to be normal, it was just going to be a new normal.”

“I think this has broken through a barrier,” said Norm of the gallery. “There’s a been a stereotype cast out for so long over kids that have Down syndrome, and this display really has the power to touch someone’s heart. We want to tear down the walls of stereotyping.”

Jenine Simon, whose son, Sam, is featured in the display, agreed.

“I think one of the messages of the display is that they wanted people to see how much alike they are,” she said. “They’re more like us than they are different, that they can do things. They’re just like everyone else and this shows how important they are.”

“Sam was so excited for the photoshoot, it was awesome,” Simon added. “He is kind of a celebrity in town; everybody knows him wherever we go and we’ve only lived here four years. We’ve never had a bad experience with anyone in town — the community has just embraced him. We’re lucky that we picked Newton.”

Sam’s choice of wording on his hand during the photoshoot particularly struck Doerring, and has stayed with her since the session back in April.

“His mom wrote on his hand and he turned around and showed it to me and I just got shivers,” Doerring said. “His word was ‘important,’ and Sam is important.”

For Miranda Bratland, mother of 9-month-old Ethan, participating in the photo shoot did more than simply spread awareness — it helped her form a network of support almost immediately after the birth of her son.

“They had set up the shoot before Ethan was born,” Bratland said, adding that his birthday, March 21, is National Down Syndrome Day. “He was just 7 days old, so one of the greatest blessings was being able to meet people that were part of the exhibit and their families and connect with those families to make new friends through that process. I really hope that the community embraces these individuals and sees their beauty and that they have hopes and dreams like everyone else.”

All three families, as well as Doerring, were present for the gallery’s official unveiling at Jordan Creek Town Center in West Des Moines in October, an event each of them described as overwhelmingly emotional.

“I love to see the reaction of people as they look at the photos,” Bratland said. “It’s just been wonderful. The whole idea behind the gallery is something that is so important to us as a family. We want people to look at our son with the same respect as anyone else.”

Simon echoed this sentiment, explaining that the gallery serves as a means to dissipate any sort of preconceived notions the public may have about children and adults with Down syndrome.

“I just think that we, as parents, want our children to be seen for who they are and the gallery shows how important they are,” Simon said. “It was more emotional than I thought it was going to be.

“It has been rewarding,” she added. “The message is, ‘I have a voice,’ and our children, you know, can’t always speak for themselves. There can be judgements made about someone who has a disability, so hopefully this will give them a voice and people will see how special they really are.”

“If you want to see something that’s guaranteed to touch your heart and educate your children, come out and see the gallery,” Norm added. “These kids smile just like any of my other kids do.”

The Gigi’s Playhouse “I Have A Voice” exhibit will open at Community Heights Alliance Church on Sunday, with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m., and will run through Jan. 26, when it will move to the Center for Arts & Artists until Feb. 9. It will then spend an additional week at NHS. Admission is free, and the gallery is open to all ages.

Staff writer Nicole Wiegand may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 422, or at

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