Gillian Kunkel has a big heart and a broad smile. She is a hard worker, a good friend and a loving big sister. Like any child, she has her bad days, too. But her life, like her sister's, is a gift. "I feel like I won the lottery because Gillian's so great and such a wonderful addition to our family," her mom, Nicole Kunkel, says.
But Kunkel didn't feel like a lottery winner when she was told her daughter would be born with Down syndrome. That's because the diagnosis was delivered with more "I'm sorry" than "Congratulations." That's not uncommon, Kunkel tells us. And she and other parents of children who have Down syndrome are trying to change that. "We want to change the diagnosis experience," Kunkel says. For many parents, the memory is a painful one, but it doesn't have to be. The news may be unexpected, but it's not bad. Far from it, Kunkel says. "Our daughter is exactly what our family needed."
That's a message Kunkel, an education coordinator for waste management and recycling at Mayo Clinic, tries to convey to the new parents she meets when delivering Jack's Baskets to families in the Rochester area. The nonprofit provides gift baskets to families who have a child with Down syndrome and offers education materials for providers. The goal of both efforts? Celebrate the babies and congratulate the parents who become some of the lucky few.
"I want to give families hope and a sense of community," Kunkel says. They're both things she needed but didn't immediately receive herself after Gillian's birth. "I desperately needed someone to tell me it will be OK. It means more than words can say to be able to provide that to other families."
Kunkel has delivered more than 20 baskets since becoming a volunteer ambassador for Jack's Basket, welcoming newly diagnosed families to the Down syndrome community. And she's not the only one delivering the bundles to babies who rock an extra chromosome. Jack's Baskets have been given to more than 1,750 babies in 48 states and 11 countries since 2014. In addition to toys, books and a letter from Jack's Basket's founder, each basket also includes brochures from organizations that support children with Down syndrome. "There are so many resources now to help parents help their child have the best life possible," Kunkel says. While the diagnosis comes with health challenges and developmental delays, it’s not as limiting as once perceived. "People with Down syndrome are doing things unheard of 30 years ago."
That includes attending college, working and living independently — all things Kunkel expects Gillian to do some day. "What can she do? She can really do anything," Kunkel says. "There are no limits."
Learn how to request a Jack's Basket here. Then leave a comment below, where there's never a limit on comments or opportunities to share this story using the social media tools atop this page.