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Bonnie Harper proves there are far more abilities than disabilities when living with Down syndrome


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Mention the name Bonnie Harper, and watch people’s faces light up. Bonnie is known by many, both at the Glennwood House and beyond, as “the most popular girl in town.” She’s always on the move. With two paid jobs, several volunteer positions, an active athletic schedule, and a full social life, Bonnie is busy. She barely had time to catch up with me one Thursday afternoon, between laundry day and Girls’ Night Out. Squeezing our interview into an already hectic schedule, her eyes were on the clock. But that didn’t stop her from greeting me with enthusiasm. “I’m Bonnie,” she told me, shaking my hand. “I’m 30.” 

Bonnie Harper closeup

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Bonnie Harper, at home at Glennwood House, an independent living community 

for adults with physical or developmental disabilities

In those 30 years, Bonnie has built a full and rich life, integrating herself into several local communities and proving – to herself and everyone around her – that her many abilities exceed her challenges, and her wide variety of talents are far more important than her limitations.

Glennwood House becomes home

Bonnie is one of the original residents at Glennwood House, celebrating her fifth year there and loving it. When she returns to her mother’s place in Laguna Niguel on the weekends, she can’t wait to get back to Glennwood. She appreciates the freedom and independence, she loves her friendly neighbors and staff, and she adores the structure of a scheduled environment. “Bonnie’s alarm clock is set for 7:30 a.m.,” Rachel Landers, Associate Director of Glennwood House, tells me. “If we go in at 7:29, Bonnie will know it. She’s very by-the-book.” 

Bonnie is Glennwood’s “Calendar Girl.” She’s in charge of the front office calendar, writing the date and keeping track of the resident sign-in and sign-out sheets. She also maintains a detailed personal calendar of everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries, and other special events, making sure cards are sent out on time.

In addition to the supportive staff, the beautiful grounds, and the opportunity for independent living, there’s never a dull moment at Glennwood House. There are art classes, bowling nights, special conditioning training, as well as computer and reading classes. But Bonnie’s favorites might be movie and karaoke nights. She keeps her own extensive movie collection in her room, peppered with plenty of Disney. But Glee, Bonnie tells me, is her favorite. Her older brother, Forrest, got her Glee for Christmas – 

and it was the perfect gift. “Bonnie also knows every song from Mamma Mia,” Rachel says. “She can even act out the parts. She’s the karaoke queen.”

Bonnie Harper group

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Hanging out in the common room at Glennwood, where there’s never a dull moment

She’s also motivated to pitch in and help when she can. “Every day, Bonnie sweeps the dining hall,” says Rachel. “She consistently does that every night. We don’t ask her, but she’s always thinking of others.” That concern for others extends to Faith Manners, Chief Operating Officer at Glennwood. If Faith isn’t in her office, Bonnie will begin asking Rachel her whereabouts. “She’s very intuitive about who’s there and who isn’t,” says Rachel. “Sometimes I have to just say she’s at the bank.”

On the job and on the move

Through Integrated Resources Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to fully assimilating people with disabilities into the community and securing paid employment opportunities for them, Bonnie has worked the past six years at Panera Bread. Recently, she added another day of employment at Del Taco. “She dumps the trash, cleans the tables and trays, keeps the salsa and salt and pepper in the right places,” says her mother, Kay Harper. “They’re happy with her and she loves it.”

Bonnie Harper Del Taco

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Bonnie showing off her new Del Taco uniform

Bonnie’s former job coach, Ann Boscardin, worked with her for three years. They went out every day, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, allowing Bonnie to work in both paid and volunteer positions. “She’s a very conscientious and good worker,” says Ann. “She remembers things.” 

The restaurant industry is perfect for Bonnie, who has a passion for food. “She loves different kinds of foods and likes to try different things. She’ll never order the same thing from the same restaurant,” says Ann. “She’s very interested in the textures and tastes. The only time she didn’t like something was when she put five or six jalapenos on it. I told her she still liked jalapenos, just not so many at once.” Bonnie loves her lunch at Panera at the end of her shift. “She’d try something new every time, planning for it throughout the week,” says Ann.

In addition to her paid employment, Bonnie volunteers at the Florence Sylvester Senior Center in Laguna Woods, serving lunch to the residents, sitting with them and chatting. She also donates time at the Family Assistance Ministry and Crossline Church in Laguna Hills, stuffing bulletins into envelopes. She’s active in the church community, participating in the Lighthouse Group, a weekly youth group meeting for young adults with special needs. Lighthouse provides physical, emotional, educational and spiritual support for this community.

Bonnie also returns to her alma mater, Dana Hills High School, to work at the textbook collection center, meeting current students and making new friends.

“If the focus is on what Bonnie can do, it’s amazing,” says Kay. “There are so many abilities.”

Take her out to the ballgame…and the pool

Speaking of what else Bonnie can do – she’s adept at a wide variety of sports. She’s an incredible swimmer. She loves kayaking, paddleboarding, and almost everything else involving water (including Caribbean cruises). “She very steady, even if not very fast,” says Ann. “She finishes her workouts and is very methodical.” 

But baseball is Bonnie’s first love. She’s been active with the Challenger League since she was five. The Little League Challenger Program, and Senior League Challenger Division, is an adaptive baseball program giving individuals with physical or developmental disabilities the opportunity to play on a league. “The kids aren’t competitive or mean to each other,” says Kay. “They’re just there to support each other. If somebody falls, everyone stops to pick them up.” 

Although Bonnie is a Dodgers fan, she’s been able to play at Angels Stadium with the professional players over the years. 

Ann adds, “She’s also the biggest goofball. Bonnie loves a great joke.” 

A heart for others

When Bonnie lost her father last year, her concern wasn’t for herself. “Do you miss your husband?” she sometimes asks her mom. Bonnie’s empathy, her protective nature and kind disposition have touched countless lives around her. 

“If I hadn’t had Bonnie,” says Kay, “I wouldn’t be the person I am. She’s taught me so much more than I was prepared for – patience and love, tolerance and the acceptance of others who are different. All that makes me a different person.”

Bonnie Harper room

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Bonnie in her meticulously clean room at Glennwood

Kay offers some generally great parenting advice. “Try not to overreact. It’s easy to overreact in parenting. You need to take it slower. Let time pass. Become more understanding and tolerant.” Kay says it’s better to set the example, rather than preach the lesson. Using phrases like, “That’s not how we do it in this family” or “I wouldn’t do it that way” gives children more autonomy and control. It makes them the agents of their decisions.

Glennwood gives its residents that autonomy and independence. It empowers them to make their own choices, and provides a safety net – and some consequences – 

if they choose unwisely. 

Facts and statistics about Down syndrome

Down syndrome results from the presence of an extra (or partial extra copy) of chromosome 21. It’s become more common in recent years, and the life expectancy of individuals with Down syndrome is on the rise. As Ann told me, “If you’ve met one person with Down syndrome, you’ve only met one person with Down syndrome.” The only thing individuals have in common is an extra chromosome. Beyond that, individuals are as unique, distinctive and particular as anyone else.

Bonnie Harper desk

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Bonnie at her desk, showing off her many memories and memorabilia

In 2011, Brian Skotko, a Harvard-trained physician and researcher, published a groundbreaking survey “Self-perceptions from People with Down Syndrome.” The study reported: “Among those surveyed, nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome indicated that they were happy with their lives; 97 percent liked who they are; and 96 percent liked how they look. Nearly 99 percent of people with Down syndrome expressed love for their families, and 97 percent liked their brothers and sisters. While 86 percent of people with Down syndrome felt they could make friends easily, those with difficulties mostly had isolating living situations.” 

Even stereotypes that are positive and well intentioned can be hurtful. The assumption that all individuals with Down syndrome are happy, friendly, and loving is a generalization and, as with any generalization, fails to take each unique individual into account. It’s important to see people – and their personal qualities, talents, flaws and gifts – for the specific individuals they are.

Actor and Down syndrome advocate Chris Burke put it best: “Having Down syndrome is like being born normal. I am just like you and you are just like me. We are all born in different ways, that is the way I can describe it. I have a normal life.”