The store 26-year-old Eric owns with his mom isn’t your typical gift shop. At Something Different by Eric, most of the products are made by companies that give some of their profits to charity. The store is staffed entirely by volunteers, including Anna Davis, a former special education teacher who has been instrumental to the store’s success, and Eric’s dad, Lawrence Wells, MD, who works at the store on weekends. Books about physical and mental disabilities are displayed next to the onesies, mugs and greeting cards. And the goal isn’t to make a profit — it’s to create a community.
“We want it to be a community gathering place — somewhere people can feel good about,” says Eric’s mom, Bernadette Wheeler, MD.
A former patient of CHOP’s Trisomy 21 Program, Eric graduated from Lower Merion High School in 2012. Today, he works as a greeter at the store, where he’s gaining valuable job experience — and showing others what’s possible for people with Down syndrome.
“Eric has limited communication skills, but if you ask him who owns the store, he will proudly say ‘this is my store’ with a big smile on his face,” says Bernadette.
A team of experts
Eric was born at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, shortly after his parents, both doctors, completed their residency training. Bernadette knew right away that something was different about her son. “I looked at him and said ‘He has Down syndrome,’” she remembers. A week later, a chromosomal test confirmed the diagnosis.
When Eric was 9 months old, he had surgery at UCSF to repair a congenital heart defect. When his family moved to Philadelphia in 2002, he had a follow-up visit with a cardiologist at CHOP and began seeing a pediatrician at CHOP Care Network Flourtown. The Trisomy 21 Program was a valuable resource for the family as well.
Though Eric had no significant health issues as a child, “knowing that CHOP was there for us was huge,” says Bernadette.
Eric is very active — he loves to swim and play basketball — and over the next few months, he will be even busier than usual. In addition to serving as a Champion at the CHOP Buddy Walk® and Family Fun Day, he’s preparing for a major job-related transition: In early September, Something Different by Eric will move to 814 West Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA.
In their new, larger location, the team will invite clinicians, lawyers and others to give educational talks on disability-related topics and will provide even more job training opportunities for people with disabilities.
“We want to educate the community,” says Bernadette, “and we want people to see disabled individuals in action.”