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Ahern: Nonprofit celebrates differences in all children

Members I Am Who I Am deliver congratulations blankets Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital. Pictured (from left) are executive director Holly

Members of I Am Who I Am deliver congratulations blankets to Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital. Pictured (from left) are executive director Holly Simon; Molly Gallagher, of Chicago’s Beverly community; Maureen Brennan, a social worker at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital, Nathaniel Simon and board member Marcie Harvey. | Supplied Photo

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:08AM



Holly Simon said she has never been very good at resting, but her restlessness seems to be useful.

After all, she wants to accomplish much in her life. And then there are the promises she made to her son, Nathaniel, who was born nine years ago with Down syndrome.

At the time of Nathaniel’s birth, Simon told her son no one would ever hurt him, and she would do whatever it took to care for and love him. Simon also felt guilty about the lack of excitement after his birth, and she therefore wanted to celebrate his first year by making awareness part of her celebration.

Simon made good on her promises. By Nathaniel’s first birthday, Simon organized HollyDays, an annual fundraising effort she runs to help benefit the National Association for Down Syndrome. She also established a nonprofit organization called I Am Who I Am, which builds awareness and, in turn, celebrates all special children.

This year’s version of HollyDays, an artisan’s fair, will run from 6 to 10 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St., Chicago. Admission is $5 and will include a photo exhibit of all special children who are part of the I Am Who I Am project.

Also, more than 30 artisans will be on hand to sell handmade jewelry, gourmet foods, hand-sewn items, knit wear, glass work, antique pieces and children’s items.

“The photo exhibit has expanded,” said Simon, who lives in Chicago’s Beverly community. “It will have new faces of children who have special attributes. We are not just a Down syndrome organization, although that is a focus for me, due to ‘Nate the Great.’

“I Am Who I Am continues to celebrate the differences in all children. Why, when a special-needs child is born, are people gloom and doom? Who decided who would be celebrated and who would not? We want to change the thinking of all doctors and nurses so that they stop saying, ‘I’m sorry’ when a special child is born and, instead, they will say, ‘Congratulations.’”

To encourage the celebration of every birth, I Am Who I Am provides “congratulations” baby blankets to Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital, as well as Little Company of Mary Hospital, so that when a special-needs child is born, parents are given a blanket that congratulates them on the birth of their child.

“I want any special child to be wrapped in our blankets,” Simon said. “The family should know immediately that not only is being special a gift, but they are not alone. We have donated four dozen blankets since our not-for-profit began six months ago.

“This is our chance to come in and educate the people that they have delivered a baby and not an imperfection,” Simon said. “There are imperfections in all of us, but ask a special- needs mom — the love their new child brings to the family outweighs their imperfections tenfold.”

Maureen Brennan, a social worker at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, wrote in an email that she is happy to share the I Am Who I Am blankets.

“I have the pleasure of meeting countless families who have a brand-new baby born with Down syndrome,” Brennan wrote. “I offer words of hope, encouragement, support — and now I have these beautiful I Am Who I Am blankets to welcome these beautiful babies to the world — to wrap these babies in love and blessings.

“These blankets bring smiles, hope, friendship, and are the beginning of a lifetime of love, happiness and endless opportunities. I can’t think of a better way to welcome these beautiful children into the world.”

Simon, who first established I Am Who I Am as part of an online blog, said the site now includes nutritional information, a variety of resources regarding special-needs children, and a mother’s support group.

“This has expanded all through word of mouth,” Simon said. “I’m just a mom and I started this site, and I may be the loudest voice there, but it isn’t mine. It’s all of ours. This has gotten so big that it’s just beautiful.

“I am hearing from people in California, Texas — all over. We’re building a village here. I feel so blessed, and I’m just going to keep working until this job is done. When you have a special- needs child, the world can be a scary place, but it does get better.

“These kids pull at our heart strings. Nathaniel accepts nothing less than love and support and, you know, everybody wants the same things. We all want to be happy, loved and accepted.

“People always tell me to slow down. I just don’t know how. This is not an easy climb, but it’s one worth taking. Just think how amazing it would be if we all accepted others as unique individuals and respected their differences.

“If Nathaniel had his way, we would all say, ‘Hello’ to strangers until they became our friends. We would hug freely and leave behind a smile.

“Can you imagine? I can. That’s why I must keep on.”

To learn more about I Am Who I Am, visit www.iam-whoiam.com.



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