model gigi cunningham

Teen With Down Syndrome Brushes Off Bullying and Breaks Into Modeling

Gigi Cunningham dreams of having a career in the entertainment industry, and with a handful of modeling jobs already under her belt, the spunky 17-year-old is on her way to doing just that. But what’s even more impressive is that she’s using her talent to raise awareness for the Down syndrome community and to put an end to bullying.

model gigi cunningham
Image courtesy of Erica Butler/Majestic Time Photography

On October 10 Gigi will serve as one of three representatives in the Buddy Walk in Urbana, Illinois, which is a National Down Syndrome Society event. Later in the month Gigi will walk the runway in the 2015 Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show in Denver, Colorado, which is her biggest achievement yet.

The Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show is put on by the Global Down Syndrome Foundation (GDSF), and it is the largest fundraiser for Down syndrome in the nation, according to the event’s website. More than 1,200 guests attend each year, and it has raised $9.5 million for Down syndrome research, medical care, advocacy and education.

photographs of model gigi cunningham
Image courtesy of Erica Butler/Majestic Time Photography

Despite her recent success, several years ago Gigi was mercilessly taunted by her peers at school, Gigi’s mother, Erica Butler, told The Mighty. Gigi came home in tears after being teased by a group of girls one day, but after a long talk the two figured out a way to move forward.

“Gigi understands that there are some cruel people in the world, but that you do not let that tear you down as a person,” Butler told The Mighty in an email. In September Gigi passed out anti-bullying information at a Down syndrome event at the Labor Day Parade in Danville, Illinois, and she’s hoping to do more advocacy work in the future. Butler added the Gigi also watches DVDs from the Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center and reads their anti-bullying literature.

While she’s too busy to be bothered by bullies these days, Gigi is aware of the fact that she’ll face new challenges within the entertainment industry.

“Many doors will close and many will open,” Gigi told The Mighty in an email. “Always approach your obstacle with a ‘I can’ attitude and with a smile on your face because you are worth it. My belief is that you can do all things through Christ and with prayer nothing is impossible. Never give up and if no one else believes in you I do. We are winning. I am determined to help change the face of beauty.”

photographs of model gigi cunningham
Image courtesy of Erica Butler/Majestic Time Photography

“Gigi has been turned away from many opportunities because she has Down Syndrome,” Butler added. “She has been told she is not what we are looking for and that people like that should stay at home, or she is not beautiful. People have said many cruel things and Gigi does not let that stop her from what she is destined to be and that is greatness. Every morning before she goes to school she looks in the mirror and says I’m beautiful and we high-five each other.”

Not surprisingly, fellow model Madeline Stuart is one of Gigi’s biggest sources of inspiration. Gigi was inspired by Stuart to pursue her dreams of being a model and actress and she hopes to meet her one day.

“She is such an inspiration to many girls with Down syndrome and special needs and challenges,” Gigi told The Mighty. “No matter what we are beautiful, confident and can do anything that we set our minds to.”

photograph of model gigi cunningham
Image courtesy of Erica Butler/Majestic Time Photography

So what does Gigi want the world to know?

“When people read my story I want them to know that I can do anything, [and] with social media the world will see my true potential and beauty,” she told The Mighty. “I want the modeling world to give me a chance also and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. I want the world to really change how they perceive people with disabilities and continue to embrace their beauty. Never set limits on your child… they just might exceed them. People with Down syndrome are beautiful, smart, creative, loving, confident and it should be displayed.”

“I love that I can inspire others to make a change and love the skin they are in,” she concluded.


When a Teacher Made an Unexpected Gift for My Son With Down Syndrome

As I dropped off my son at school this morning, his teacher pulled me aside. “He only knows six colors.”

My son wriggled out of my grasp as I struggled simultaneously to straighten his glasses, rub this morning’s smoothie from his face and add up the colors of the rainbow. I looked back at her, tacked on black, white and brown to my running total, and responded, “He actually knows at least 10 or 11.”

“En Español,” his teacher replied. “He only knows six en Español.”

Now she had my full attention.

I stood up straight and gave her a dubious look, “What do you mean? He knows his colors in Spanish?”

“Oh, yes! Of course, he does!” She went on. “He not only knows his colores, but he can count to cinco — sometimes diez if he’s willing.”

At that, she lifted him up for a demonstration. “Oo-no, doh, tray, qua-ro, see-no!” he said with glee.

All at once, a familiar sensation surged through my body. A feeling of intense pride and joy commingled with validation (all lightly sprinkled with the guilt of my incredulity).

It’s not that I doubted his ability. I know my boy is sharp as a tack — he knows his numbers, shapes, colors, animals and more. It’s that he just turned 3 a few days ago. And the concept of a foreign language was introduced only last month. And he just happens to have Down syndrome.

As I processed this new information and secretly chided myself for not speaking more Spanish at home, his teacher said she had something just for him. She went to her desk and returned with a laminated folder that contained twelve crayon cutouts and the corresponding Spanish translation. It was titled, “Colores en Español.”

Brooke Conley.3-001

She then held out a stack of perfectly matching laminated cutouts, each trimmed precisely and uniformly and held together with a silver paper clip.

“This is for you to keep,” she said. “He’s very good at matching and loves learning new words en Español. I thought he could practice at home. He is smart and it is good for him. Sometimes he doesn’t want to do the work, but when you push him, he will show you what he knows.”

I thanked her profusely and kissed my boy goodbye. I clutched the folder to my chest and made it to the car before the tears came.

How could this woman possibly understand that the aide she had created for my son was actually a gift in disguise? To the outsider, it was simply a flimsy manila folder that contained a few laminated crayon cutouts. But to me it was an archive, overflowing with belief, equality and encouragement.

It wasn’t just the fact she had spent her personal time meticulously crafting an activity tailored to my son’s interest in all things rainbow. It wasn’t the neatly cut lines or the steadily scripted words or the fact that there were a dozen children in her class and she had made this offering only to one.

It was because other than my husband and me, no one has ever had such direct and blatant expectations for him. Through her contribution, I realized she instinctively and completely understands my son is not defined by any diagnosis or therapeutic buzzword or illness.

In one simple gesture, she counteracted all of the labels he has been strapped with in the past. She didn’t take the time to make this gift for my son because he’s delayed or cognitively impaired or special. She made it because he’s smart and curious and full of promise. She made it because he sometimes needs to be reined in a bit, not because he has Down syndrome, but because he’s a busy, mischievous, typical 3-year old. She made it because she believes in this particular blue-eyed, blonde-haired little boy who likes to count and color — in any language.

Sometimes, I encourage my son to show off his skills. I beam with pride as he conveys what he knows through slightly garbled words and a flourish of his little fingers. Until today, I thought putting him on display was a form of education and outreach — proof to those who dare to question his worth. “See here? This child is truly more alike than different.”

But now I understand my blandishments for what they really are: desperate pleas for the world to see my son as I do — unique, brilliant and capable.

Today, his teacher unknowingly answered my supplication in the form of a manila folder.

A folder that said, “I see you.”

Te veo.

“And you are loved.”

To the People Who Think We're 'Making the Best Out of a Bad Situation'

When I was 13 weeks pregnant, it was confirmed that our third and final child, a boy we joyfully referred to as “Baby Sugar,” would be born with Down syndrome. Initially, it was a shock and I feared what our new normal would look like. 

Two years later, our new normal looks that the same of any typical family plus a few added weekly therapy sessions. I’ve come to realize how lucky we are and am so happy this boy, Dash, was given to us.

But on the other hand, I’ve felt something deep in my heart that makes me sad, too. You see, when we’re out and about in public, we’ve gotten quite used to the stares. Most people are curious about others who may look or act different. They are intrigued by Dash. They smile, giggle and wave to our son, and he loves it because he’s very much a people person. I’m talking about those few-and-far-between stares that resemble pity. The comments made to us or around us that basically suggest we’re making the best out of a not-great situation. 

I must make it abundantly clear when I say there is no bad situation. We are not pretending. The joy, the laughter, the smiles and most importantly the love between us is real. We do feel incredibly lucky to have this little boy in our lives. Lucky — like “we won the lottery” lucky. I must also make it clear that he’s not lucky to have us — we’re lucky to have him. I must urge those who see someone who looks different from themselves or their child to reach out and ask questions, but most importantly, get to know that child. You may make a friend and possibly learn something about yourself you didn’t know. We’re all different, and in our house, different is beautiful.

Dash has taught me so much about myself since I was prenatally diagnosed that I may have never known without him. Our world is definitely much brighter and more beautiful since the day he walked into it. I truly believe he was meant to be mine. He has given me far more in his two short years than I may ever give back to him during his lifetime.

If you happen to see my family out and about, as we often are, and you see us totally in love and proud of our son who happens to have Down syndrome — it simply means we are.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability and/or disease. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

To the New Parents Googling Their Baby’s Down Syndrome Diagnosis

To the parents who just received a diagnosis of Down syndrome:

I remember when we were pregnant with our first child and I absolutely couldn’t wait to find out the sex of our baby. I was certain I’d never been more more anxious before in my life. Once we finally reached that precious day and learned the sex of our first child, I did calm down… for about 30 seconds. I was impatient about putting a face to the name we chose for her. We spent too much money to see 3-D images of our girl that didn’t give me any better idea of what she’d actually look like. The second time around I was equally as excited and impatient to see our second daughter’s sweet face, but I managed to pass on the the expensive extra images and wait a little more patiently for her entrance to the world for our first official viewing.

The third time, however, we received additional information with our gender ultrasound — the diagnosis of an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. I pulled up Google faster than I could even say Down syndrome to find out what to expect. I read and read over the next few months. I loved her with my whole heart already.

After all my research, I thought I knew exactly what and who I was expecting. I’d spent months reading the same bits of information just reworded a million times; we were having a floppy-limbed, flat-nosed baby with almond eyes, a protruding tongue, curvy fingers with a straight line across her hand and a tiny little neck. She probably wouldn’t be able to speak to us very well if at all. She probably wouldn’t walk for a long time, and she would likely be pretty delayed in just about every area imaginable. Right? Wrong!

I could list all the many ways my daughter, KC, and many others we know with that extra awesome chromosome prove that so-called research wrong, but instead I’ll say this: when I think about what would’ve come up if I Googled “what to expect with my typical daughters,” the answer is I’d still have no idea how they’d turn out. I’d have no idea one would have beautiful, hazel, almond eyes, an incredible love of learning and an unimaginable memory. I’d have no way of knowing our other little girl would be able to make me laugh every time she opened her cute little mouth (especially when she’s supposed to be in trouble), or that her big brown eyes would sparkle back when the most girly, princess-y dress you’ve ever seen is held up in front her.

Similarly, I never would’ve found on Google that our KC’s presence would instantly inspire us or that she’d love baby dolls, tea parties and Batman with her whole heart. Or that her sweet little voice would be one of my favorite sounds, especially when she’s standing under my feet in the kitchen, singing “guacamole, guacamole.” I had no way of knowing until I met her that her extra chromosome would be the farthest thought in my mind when I look at her contagious smile.

The fact is that, you can’t Google who your kid is going be. Only experiencing them each and every day will show you. I’ve learned, extra chromosomes or not, they’ll be amazing people who rock your world from the first moment you hold them. They will own you the first time they look into your eyes and you see all the potential in that little face with the incredible, unique features you and your partner combined to create this amazing person.

If you’re one of the lucky few who gets a little extra to love, I believe you’ll be honored and humbled by all of the opportunities you now have to prove wrong the incorrect, repetitive, biased articles you come across when you research this new diagnosis on Google. I wish the first thing you read was this instead: “Congratulations on your uniquely perfect gift!”

Joy Parman's daughter

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Princess Diana's Goddaughter With Down Syndrome Responds to TV Star's Hateful Comments

Domenica Lawson, goddaughter to the late Princess Diana, has responded to comments made by a British reality TV personality about people with Down syndrome.

Ursula Presgrave, 24, who appeared on BBC3’s show “The Call Centre,” posted on her Facebook page last week her thoughts that all people with Down syndrome should be “put down,” Wales Online reported. The post, later removed, said the following:

“Anyone born with down syndrome should be put down, it’s just cruel to let them lead a pointless life of a vegetable.”

Lawson, 20, has Down syndrome and is the daughter of Rosa Monckton, who was close friends with Princess Diana. Lawson was born two years before Princess Diana’s death and is now a student at City College Brighton and Hove, according to her Facebook page.

Lawson recently spoke out about the hateful comments and wrote a letter to Presgrave, the Irish Mirror reported.

With Downs syndrome we are born this way and we are not like vegetables – that’s a mad thing to say. This is my life,” Lawson wrote, according to the outlet. “You can’t say put Down’s Syndrome people down like a dog – it’s upsetting and it’s not on. So what if we are Down’s Syndrome – it makes us who we are. We are real people.”

Since Presgrave’s original comment sparked outrage on Facebook, it has been removed and police have launched an investigation into the post after receiving a number of complaints, Wales Online reported.

Hear more from Rosa Monckton and Domenica Lawson in the documentary about children with special needs below, called “Letting Go.”

I Dreamed My Son Didn’t Have Down Syndrome. I’m Glad It Was Just a Dream.

I had a dream this past week that my son Baker woke up without Down syndrome.

It was as if his extra chromosome was absorbed into his plush, minky sheets. Or as if the sandman had carted it off in his knapsack and tucked it beside the lavender he used for lulling.

It was gone. Kaput. Vamoose.

His beautiful eyes still boasted their autumn pools but lacked the almond slant that never fails to draw me in and captivate my whole being.

His tongue remained tucked obediently inside his cheek, not once lagging like it does on occasion, especially when he’s focusing so intently.

His hands hung by his side, not in front of his face for signing, as words bounded from his lips — articulate, coherent and utterly foreign.

As I reached in to hug him, his body didn’t collapse into mine, which is my favorite thing about Baker — the way his low muscle tone makes him puddle into my eager embrace.

He was stiff. Solid. Strong.

His steps didn’t waiver, not once did his balance falter. He was sure-footed and walked with a stability his little body has never known.

In that instant, he became a typical child. Gone were the thoughts of IEPs. Therapies were tossed into oblivion. His challenges became successes. The specialists on speed dial were no more.

I sat abruptly in bed. Tears streaming. Faint whimpers escaped my lips.

I navigated through the dark room and padded the familiar steps to Baker’s bed. I picked him up and felt his warm body fold sleepily into mine.


It was just a dream. He was still the same Baker Boy I’d read “Let Me Hold You Longer” to while his little body relaxed and his eyes grew heavy.

He was still the same Baker Boy I’d rocked and sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and to seal the deal, “You Are My Sunshine” to only hours earlier.

Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.

I don’t know who said it originally, but I believe it to the very depths of my being. I never knew I wanted a child with Down syndrome until I had one. No truer words have ever been spoken.

He’s loved exactly the way he is. I believe he’s one of our Creator’s greatest masterpieces. He was crafted in love. He was knit together wonderfully. He’s a joy spreader, a light brightener, a glad giver.

Being his mother is the greatest blessing. I believe watching his life bring glory to our Jesus is an incredible gift.

Just the way you are, sweet Baker, we love you just the way you are.

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