Feb. 14, 2003 – Acrobat, athlete, artist, equestrian, linguist, sailor, world traveler — at 45, Charlie Giorgi has accomplished more than what many dare to dream.
His successes are even more remarkable considering that when he was born, doctors told his mother, St. Croix resident Lisa Giorgi, that he would never walk or talk, or live beyond 12 to 14 years of age.
Charlie has Down Syndrome.
But what many would call a handicap, Charlie calls an opportunity. "He said to me one time, 'I don't mind having Down's. I can use it to help other people,'" Lisa Giorgi said as she addressed a group of people a week ago in a workshop held at Territorial Court on St. Croix.
The Education Department coordinated the gathering so the Giorgis could share their story with families in the Virgin Islands dealing with Down Syndrome.
The duo kept the audience in stitches with their back-and-forth banter. Charlie, who lives in Anaheim, California, has been independent for more than 17 years. He has an apartment of his own and cooks and cleans for himself, all the while holding down two jobs.
He is a client of Project Independence, a not-for-profit program in California that individualizes aid for clients based on their particular needs, helping them to be as independent as possible.
Charlie's infectious smile captivated his listeners as he told about his life. He has won more than 50 medals in Special Olympics competition, has traveled the world with Project Independence and is an accomplished artist.
Born in New York City to American and French parents, he grew up speaking English and French in the home, and at one time he spoke some Spanish because of friendship with a family from Mexico. Because of hearing difficulties, he also has mastered American Sign Language.
His signing skills enabled him help someone else just the other day, Lisa Giorgi said: "We were at a local restaurant having lunch, and a man who was deaf came in and was having difficulty communicating with the waitress. Charlie went up to him and asked, signing, 'Do you sign?' The man immediately engaged him in conversation, and Charlie then interpreted for him."
Charlie said his favorite actor is Christopher Reeves, who was paralyzed from the neck down some years ago after a horseback riding accident. Reeves, he pointed out, "says 'It's not about disability, but ability.'"
Much of Charlie's enthusiasm for life has surely rubbed off from his mother. Lisa Giorgi as a teen-ager was part of a demonstration group that contemporary dance pioneer Martha Graham utilized in giving lectures on her techniques. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Paris and had a career in public relations with McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Corp. until retiring 17 years ago, when she moved to St. Croix.
Lisa Giorgi pointed out that social interaction is very important for children with Down Syndrome. Her daughter does not have Down, but "I never treated either of my children any differently," she said.
The Virgin Islands has no program like Project Independence in place, and often youngsters in the territory with Down Syndrom are kept in the home, out of the public eye. "You may or may not see older children with Down," Maureen Moorhead, special education coordinator for the Education Department, said.
But Moorhead wants that to change. "We want to get beyond the physical appearance of the children and get to what they can be and do," she said.
A good way for individuals and groups in the community to get involved in helping children with Down or other disabilities and their families is to participate in the V.I. Special Olympic Games. Community support and volunteers are always needed, Lisa Giorgi said.
This year's St. Thomas Games are set for March 15, tentatively at Charlotte Amalie High School. The St. Croix Games will take place on March 22 where they have been held since 1977 — on the recreation grounds at Renaissance Park (formerly Vialco/St. Croix Alumina). For information about getting involved, call Archie Jennings on St. Thomas at 776-1577 or Janice Lee on St. Croix at 772-2277.
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