Brittany’s Baskets of Hope: Entrepreneur with Down Syndrome makes a difference through a unique initiative
Long Island resident Brittany Schiavone has Down Syndrome, a condition she embraces wholeheartedly, never letting it become an impediment to her dreams and aspirations. Instead, the 30-year-old uses her condition to help others with similar diagnosis through her unique social enterprise, Brittany's Baskets of Hope. The initiative has Brittany deliver boxes of goodies like hand made blankets and baby hats, among others to American families with babies with Down Syndrome.
Since its inception in 2016, the enterprise has delivered over 750 baskets to 48 states across the United States, including Puerto Rico.
TAL caught up with Brittany who was assisted by her mother Susan Schiavone and friend Ashley Asti, to learn more about the inspiration behind her enterprise, the challenges she faces, and her experience growing up with Down Syndrome.
Before we speak about Brittany's Baskets of Hope, please tell us something about yourself.
I was born and raised in Long Island, NY, which is where I still live with my parents. I have an elder brother and brother-in-law, whom I love a lot. I turned 30 in March and celebrated all month long with three parties; I’m a party girl at heart! I love acting and have taken acting and improv classes at Stony Brook University in a program for individuals with developmental disabilities.
I also enjoy going to the movies, bowling, having girls’ nights and dancing. While I am very involved in Brittany’s Baskets of Hope and serve as the organisation’s Founder, I also work two part-time jobs. I work at Party City with the support of a Job Coach who accompanies me to work and do administrative work for SMILE, which helps people like me live independent, self-directed lives.
What prompted you to start Brittany’s Baskets of Hope, any particular incident?
Some years ago, I was working at a clothing boutique, and my boss came across a YouTube video about supporting parents of babies with Down syndrome. Right then, I knew that video was meant for me. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to help mothers of babies with Down syndrome; I wanted to give them hope.
Luckily, I have incredible, supportive parents and a great team around me who were willing to go all out to help me envision and, eventually, launch my own nonprofit, Brittany’s Baskets of Hope. Initially, I imagined we would deliver baskets of hope - as we call them - locally, to new mothers in local hospitals. However, we soon realised there’s much red tape that gets in the way: it wouldn’t be possible to meet new moms of babies with Down Syndrome in the hospital.
So, we planned on meeting with local families after they returned home. However, when media attention came our way shortly after we delivered our first basket of hope in 2016, we got a surprise: requests from families across the country! These days, many of our baskets are mailed throughout the country.
What do these baskets contain that help families with children with Down Syndrome?
In the baskets, we include resources as well as fun gifts for the baby and their family. One of the most important items in the basket is a parenting book that my parents relied on 30 years ago when I was born! The book has gone through many editions since then, but it is still essential and helpful to parents of children with Down Syndrome. It’s called Babies with Down Syndrome: A New Parents’ Guide. We also include my story communicated in my words as well as my journey from my parents’ perspective.
One of our favourite items is a onesie, available in all baskets that say, “Down Right Perfect” in blue and yellow - Down Syndrome - colours. We also include baby books, headbands for the girls, muslin swaddles, handmade blankets and hats. We are blessed to receive loads of donations from knitting groups and individuals across the country who hand-make these baby blankets for us with lots of love.
When did you start this initiative? Till date how many families have you reached out to?
Brittany’s Baskets of Hope incorporated in 2014, although we didn’t get up and running for the first two years as we were figuring out the logistics. Our first basket of hope was delivered to Abel, who was adopted by a loving family in Colorado, in 2016. Since then, we have delivered over 750 baskets of hope to 48 states across the country and Puerto Rico! (We’re still holding out on Alaska and Wyoming.)
How do you get in touch with families that need these baskets? Are the baskets donated or is there a price attached to it?
The families find us! We’ve been fortunate to get fantastic media attention and word-of-mouth advertising. On our website, families can request a basket of hope for their new arrival or friends can nominate another family for a basket. We are a nonprofit and all our donations go directly to the cause, meaning all baskets of hope are delivered for free.
What kind of marketing strategies did you employ to ensure the initiative’s visibility and to reach out to people who needed the baskets the most?
We started by contacting local Down Syndrome organisations who have been so kind and supportive and have continued to refer families to our mission. Most of our outreach, however, has come through media. I have appeared on local and national media outlets including FOX Business, ABC 7 New York (“Hidden Heroes), News 12 Long Island (“12 Making a Difference”), Inside Edition, elephant journal, The Mighty, and more. Word-of-mouth advertising along with vibrant social media pages, have also helped create awareness about our initiative.
What kind of research did you undertake before starting an initiative such as this?
We didn’t do any formal research when we began the company. We just knew there were families out there who were confused and uncertain about their baby’s future. Also, from firsthand experience, we understood how helpful it is to have someone who knows what a new family with a child with Down Syndrome is going through.
Many in the medical profession still don’t fully understand how productive, successful and happy life can be even if you have Down Syndrome, and sometimes don't give families an accurate picture of the possibilities that lie ahead. Initially, we believed we would only be connecting with local families. We never imagined we would be touching lives nationally!
What challenges did you face and continue to face in starting and maintaining Brittany’s Baskets of Hope?
We are a small but dedicated team, and everyone is a volunteer here. Some of the day-to-day challenges include not having enough storage space! We get so many beautiful handmade blanket donations that we’ve run out of room. My parents have kindly donated their basement to the cause! Shipping baskets across the country is also expensive, and we’re always grateful for any donations that help us overcome this hurdle.
How do you raise funds to keep your endeavour afloat?
We have an active GoFundMe page and a community of supporters. We have also been lucky to receive donations from companies and small business owners across the country in the form of baby onesies, headbands, swaddles, and more. Some of our most committed partners include Urban Baby Co., aden + anais, Summer House Pottery, and John’s Crazy Socks.
Has there ever been an incident or a response that touched your heart and made you feel that starting this initiative was a worthwhile exercise?
Every month, we gather the basket of hope requests and come together – family and friends – to pack the baskets and get them ready for delivery. We call these events “packing parties.” As we pack, we also read aloud the basket request forms, especially the name of the baby and any other details written to us by the parents. This task is always heartwarming.
We have been lucky to hear stories of tremendous gratitude, love, hope, struggle and challenges. So many of the babies we serve begin their lives in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) or with heart surgery. We call those babies our “heart warriors” and often give them a hand-knitted baby hat with a red heart in the centre of it. When we receive thank you emails from parents, we know we’ve done the right thing in creating this project.
When we get donations from lovely people like Summer who makes the most unique burp cloths, hair clips and bibs; and she tells us that she donated them in honour of the children with Down syndrome that she lost, we know we have succeeded in creating an important project. Our community reaffirms us and makes everything we do possible.
Please don’t mind me asking this question, but how was life growing up as a young American with Down Syndrome? Did you find those around you sensitive to your needs, or did you face bullying in school? How did you manage to overcome life’s challenges?
I wasn’t bullied growing up. I was fortunate to live in a school district whose administrators and teachers understood that children with disabilities should be schooled with typical children. Also, I was one of the first few students in my district to be taught in an Inclusion classroom for elementary school. My teachers were careful to set a climate of acceptance in the school. Once I got to High School, I began taking less rigorous academic classes. For one year, my brother and I were together in High School; he was a very involved senior with many friends in different grades, and I was a freshman. He and his friends would watch over me and make sure I was okay.
As someone who works closely with children with Down Syndrome, do you think the perception towards kids with disabilities has changed over the last few years?
I asked this question to my parents, and they think that today’s society is more inclusive and accepting of people with Down Syndrome and other disabilities. Increasingly we have been hearing about people with Down Syndrome making a difference in their community by visibly living the life they want to, working in typical work settings and media, owning their own businesses, living in independent or supported apartments or houses, and getting married. The State and Federal Governments have realised that it is more beneficial and less costly to support individuals with disabilities within the community than to set up segregated programs and housing.
What role do you think we as a society can play in helping families with children with Down Syndrome and other conditions?
Society, as a whole, needs to realise that individuals with Down Syndrome have the same needs, wants, desires and aspirations that typical people have. They need to understand the potential in them. It’s like I always say, “People with Down syndrome can do anything! Really, really anything!”
Please tell us about the excellent support system you have that not only helps you with your company but also in life.
I have the best support system! Family means a lot to me, and I have a fantastic family! My mother and father support me in everything I aspire to do. I have a wonderful elder brother and brother-in-law who are always there for me. I have loving aunts, an uncle, cousins and second cousins, both nearby and in Illinois, who make our family great. We get together for holidays and vacations at our lake house, and they always treat me like everyone else. I also have staff through the services of Self Direction. These young ladies support me at work and help me live the life I want to. I couldn’t grow and continue to learn about the world without them.
Who are the real life heroes you look up to and why?
My real life hero is my brother, Justin. He is three years elder to me and has been supporting me since the beginning. In photos of us, you can see him holding or teaching me something. We are always smiling and having a good time! I am proud of him for living the life he wants and making a difference as a School Psychologist.
Other than growing Brittany’s Baskets of Hope, what are your plans for the future?
My plans for the future are pretty much like anyone else’s. I want to move out on my own in a supported apartment with my staff to help me, keep working at my jobs maybe in NY City or the theatre. I would also like to get married one day, but first I need to find a boyfriend! I want to expand Brittany’s Baskets of Hope and through it continue supporting and celebrating new babies with Down Syndrome and their families in the United States and other countries.
If you live in the United States and would like to request a basket, head over to Brittany’s Baskets of Hope’s website.