A glowing Enrica Andrenacci occasionally bursts into laughter as she watches a slideshow of her life play before her. Moments before, she was tearing it up on a makeshift dance floor, arms held out, head tilted to the side, and her face as expressionless as possible. She was carefully trying to follow a dance instructor's Thriller-esque moves.
"It was so much fun, I love my birthday!" says an ebullient Enrica. "I really enjoy watching pictures of myself so I asked my sister to make a slideshow. And I like having my friends over and eating pizza and cake!"
Birthdays are a cause for celebration for most people, but this was a special one for Enrica. The Toronto resident, who recently turned 30, had a lot to celebrate.
"I live in my own apartment with a roommate, I go to an educational program every week day, I volunteer, I paint, and I write recipes and poems!" Enrica says.
Ever playful and smiling, Enrica, who has Down syndrome, has made a fulfilling life for herself.
She lives independently with a roommate in a market-rent apartment in Toronto. Her life is funded by her family; the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP); Passport, a funding program used to help adults with a developmental disability live more independently; and temporarily by LIGHTS, an organization that helps fund people with intellectual disabilities to live in their community.
"The LIGHTS program was instrumental in getting her established in her own apartment, which she shares with another person who has Down syndrome," her mother, Judith Andrenacci, told HuffPost Canada. "She needs and has support for meal preparation and shopping through the LIGHTS program."
Judith said that aside from that assistance, Enrica functions fairly independently.
She starts her day by the alarm, like most of us, grabs breakfast, and goes to a day program in west Toronto called CORE (Centre for Opportunity, Respect and Empowerment). Here, she sets her schedule for exercise, kitchen duties and computer-based activities. There are also structured programs about relationships and life skills.
She has a very strong and determined personality, whatever she does, being working, art, music, travel, writing recipes, she does it as independently as possible, 'her way.'Enrica's father, Alfredo Andrenacci
She commutes to the program via bus, subway and streetcar on her own, and says she doesn't mind the hour-and-a-half trip, which she's been doing for the past six years.
"Enrica takes CORE very seriously," says her proud mom. "She gets there on time, calls in if she can't attend, and books vacation time, just like a job. She would make a great employee with this work ethic! And she enjoys it because she gets to see her friends at the day program, and loves the activities, especially working in the kitchen. She wants to work in a restaurant someday."
And if Enrica has her way, she will work at one someday.
"She has a very strong and determined personality, whatever she does, being working, art, music, travel, writing recipes, she does it as independently as possible, 'her way,'" said Enrica's father Alfredo Andrenacci.
"That's always been how she is," her father adds. "Growing up, the accomplishments took longer than normal to arrive, but when they did, the joy they brought was much more intense."
The couple has two more daughters, Enrica's older sister Shani, 42, from a previous marriage, and younger sister, Sabrina, 25.
The matriarch said, as the whole family gathered recently to celebrate Enrica for her birthday, they "reflected on what makes a good life, and that is choosing to be strong and stay closer together."
Staying strong and close together was a decision the family made 30 years ago in a Toronto hospital the day Enrica was born.
Parents' fear becomes one of their greatest blessings
"It's a girl!"
Tears of joy streamed down Judith's face at her doctor's proclamation on October 21, 1988. She had waited years to have another child and she was finally here, her baby girl. The tired but happy mom was beaming.
Until she heard a whispering of, "Something is wrong."
A parent's worst fear, panic set in.
"Upon hearing a diagnosis of Down syndrome, I felt rejection and disappointment," said Judith. "I had vague ideas about the condition and fear of the potential burden. I had made great plans for my unborn child like all parents."
Judith was presented with the option of giving her daughter up for adoption while she was in the hospital.
"But I realized I could never go to bed at night without knowing where she was and that she was loved and cared for. So I was determined to make the best life for her."
Together in the hospital, the couple named their newborn daughter Enrica, after her grandparents Enrico and Enrica, and swaddled her in blankets to transport her to their home in a Toronto suburb.
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And Judith says she has never regretted her decision to raise Enrica.
"Our family changed for the better as we started to find joy in things we might have taken for granted —toilet training, walking, and fairly good health. We started asking ourselves, 'What is important in life? What makes a good life? How do we value people?'"
Judith, who immigrated from Jamaica, and Alfredo, who is Italian-Canadian, say their initial concerns about raising a mixed-race family became secondary to Enrica's diagnosis.
"The discrimination against people with disabilities is a lot more blatant so we've had to focus on that," says Judith.
The mother of three says that over the years, Enrica has asked if she is special — mostly when she hears herself being discussed or if someone hurls a slur at her.
"Raising a child with Downs means that you have to be more aware as a parent of how societal barriers make it harder, but we've navigated and continue to do our best to give Enrica a good life," said Alfredo. "We have worked hard, raising a happy, accomplished daughter who happens to have Downs. Our major objective is for Enrica to continue being independent, with support."
And Enrica's objective?
"To get a boyfriend!" she exclaims excitedly, jumping up from her seat.
"She just wants friends, the comfort of a routine and yes, a boyfriend (it's a thing among her group of girlfriends)," says Judith. "All she wants is what we all want — happiness."
There are an estimated 45,000 Canadians with Down syndrome, one of the most common genetic disorders. World Down Syndrome Awareness Month in October aims to raise awareness of the disorder and celebrate the abilities of people with Down syndrome.
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