Gigi Banks’ sixth grade teacher may have known that Gigi’s life was about to change forever, but all Gigi knew was that she was signing up for summer camp. She wanted to go away to camp. She wanted to escape her environment for a while.
Gigi is an Atlanta native—a “Grady baby.” Her parents had a house in East Atlanta where they were the only Black family on the street. It was the late 1960s, and Gigi was very young, but she was not blind to the discrimination directed towards her family. She managed to settle into the community somewhat and found a friend at her predominantly White elementary school. Sherry was a White girl with a disability who wore leg braces, and the girls would play dolls on the back porch of Sherry’s house.
By fourth grade, Gigi’s parents split up, and her mom and three siblings moved to East Lake Meadows—a neighborhood that was nicknamed “Little Vietnam” because the rampant daily violence was reminiscent of the nightly news featuring the Vietnam War. For 9-year-old Gigi, it was a shocking adjustment.
Gigi's mother had to work long hours to support the family. Gigi wasn’t the oldest, but she ended up taking on a lot of the nurturing responsibilities with her younger siblings. By the time she reached the sixth grade, she had developed a hard shell as a way to cope. But her sixth-grade teacher saw something deeper in Gigi. “She took me under her wing.”
When that teacher offered Gigi the opportunity to go away to summer camp in Winder, Georgia, she jumped at the chance. She wanted to escape her environment and be a kid. But as soon as she got there, she realized this was not going to be a vacation for her. She was at Camp Will-a-Way for children with disabilities.
Gigi called her mom: “I don't want to be here! I want to come home.” But her mother encouraged her to stay and give it a chance. “So I did,” she says. “I had never witnessed the severity of disability I saw at that camp. But once I started nurturing the kids and engaging them, I could see that they were different but not different.”
Gigi ended up enjoying her time at Camp Will-a-Way. “I was sad when my two weeks were up. I signed up to volunteer the next year.” And so she did.
Gigi graduated from East Atlanta High School with a passion for fashion and a dream of cosmetology school. But first she married and had a son. Then she found a job with Central Presbyterian as an infant/toddler teacher after attaining her Child Development Associate certification.
Cosmetology school would have to be put on hold again when Gigi and her husband had their second child—a premature daughter with cerebral palsy.
“The doctors said Helethia would always be like a rag doll, that she would never be able to walk or talk,” says Gigi. “But I decided she’s gonna do everything the doctors said she couldn’t do. I was determined to prove them wrong.”
When Helethia was about 3 years old, Gigi discovered the Frazer Center and paid a visit. But she decided that the best choice for her family would be to quit her job so she could stay home with Helethia. She took her to therapy sessions, watching intently so she could replicate the therapies at home.
“Every day we would do repetition, repetition, repetition,” says Gigi. “She started learning. She started walking, talking, sitting up, everything the doctors said she couldn’t do. She was my little miracle baby.”
Gigi had a third child, further delaying her career ambitions. But as it turns out, the spark that ignited at Camp Will-a-Way started to burn brighter as Gigi realized she wanted to work with children with disabilities.
Once Helethia was old enough to go to school, Gigi started working at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta where she worked with infants and toddlers, some with disabilities who were “mainstreamed” with their typically developing peers.
While there, Gigi became friends with a fellow teacher who eventually left to work at the Frazer Center. It wasn’t long before that friend called Gigi to see if she wanted to come work at Frazer. She applied and got the job.
By then it was 2004, and Gigi’s youngest daughter was in high school. She told her daughter, “When you graduate and go to college, I’m going too.” Her daughter became valedictorian, and in 2008, they both began college.
Gigi earned an Associate of Early Childhood Education (ECE) from the University of Phoenix. She went on to get a Bachelor of Arts in ECE with a preschool concentration, graduating summa cum laude from Walden University. She continued on to earn her Masters in ECE with a concentration in administration, leadership, and management.
When Gigi first started working at Frazer, “I got so attached to this one baby. He was blind, couldn’t walk or talk. His parents were told that he wasn’t ever going to do anything. I started working with him every day. He started recognizing my voice. I got so attached to him, I felt like anything the other kids could do, he could do too.”
Her persistence started to pay off as he started making sounds. But the family moved to Canada, and Gigi never saw him again. “That was the hardest thing, to see him go. It saddens me when I have to let them go and wonder, did they reach that milestone? But my passion for children with disabilities got deeper and deeper, stronger and stronger.”
In September 2023, Gigi had her 19th anniversary with Frazer Center. Aside from her determination and persistence, what keeps her coming back? “The kids. Seeing changes in the children, seeing them develop into their own beings.” Even if she never finds out if a particular child reaches a particular milestone after they leave Frazer, she knows that progress happens. “I know it’s not going to happen overnight. But there was a change for my daughter, so I know there’s going to be a change for others.”
Gigi’s daughter Helethia is now 37 years old. She’s raising her 7-year-old son. She has a retail job, rides the bus on her own, and “does everything she wants to do. She doesn’t let anything deter her,” says Gigi.
Maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s nurture—but It’s not hard to see where Helethia gets her spirit from.
Camp Will-a-Way in Winder is now the second branch of Camp Twin Lakes, which has its flagship campus in Rutledge, Ga. Both locations offer “transformative camps for children with serious illnesses, disabilities, and other life challenges.”