Job Title: Director of Development and Community Relations, Edmonton Down Syndrome Society
Why She’s Top 40: She’s raising the quality of living for people with Down syndrome in Edmonton.
What Do You Like Most About Edmonton?: “The city’s philanthropic spirit and how Edmonton feeds the artistic, business and nature-loving side of its population.”
A trained singer, dancer and actress, Michelle Ponich encompasses what theatre types call a triple threat. “I’ve done everything from being in the nun’s chorus in The Sound of Music to playing the Lady of the Night in A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum,” says Ponich. But for the last few years, she’s taken a spot behind the curtain, motivating others to take centre stage.
Formerly employed by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Ponich was looking for a change in career when the role of executive director of the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society (EDSS) serendipitously became available.
“It was the challenge I was looking for,” says Ponich. “And what better place for me to be, since I’m not just bringing a skill set to the table, but a passion and understanding for the cause.”
Ponich’s sister, Tanya, was born with Down syndrome. Growing up together, Ponich isn’t sure when her mother might have spoken to her about her sister’s condition, or if it ever really even mattered. “My sister has been my greatest teacher,” says Ponich. “From a young age, I became her student, even though I’m the older sibling. I watched, I listened and I saw how methodically she would go about learning things.”
Pooling her skills in both communications and event planning, Ponich has done incredible work in raising the profile of the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society. While Ponich was the first hired position at the EDSS, the organization has since quadrupled its staff. She’s helped to increase fundraising efforts and volunteerism within the society. She’s also helped create special events such as the annual Uniquely Me Fashion Gala, where persons with Down syndrome are partnered with local celebrities to walk the runway.
She even found a marriage between her passions. The EDSS now has a musical-theatre program for those with Down syndrome where they can learn to perform. Many of the participants, ranging in age from eight to 30-plus, have gone on to engage in community theatre and dance programs.
“I think that if anyone,” says Ponich, “whether you were born typical or with a physical or developmental disability, is given a chance to have a voice and talk about what they want for their life, that person thrives.”