Gigantic Dreams

March 2020 View more

Nicole Kmieciak is writing a series of children’s books about inclusion under the name Dr. Nicole Julia.

By Suzanne Baker

An eighth-grade career fair at Lincoln Junior High in Naperville put Nicole Kmieciak on a pathway to where she is today as an occupational therapist and author. Back in junior high, Kmieciak told her mother she wanted to sign up to hear from a chef, a baker and a teacher for her school’s annual career fair. But mom challenged her daughter to expand her horizons.

The talk Kmieciak said she remembered the most was the one from the occupational therapist, a job she randomly picked because she knew nothing about it. As the only student in the session, Kmieciak said she was able to listen and ask questions about a career that helps people who have injuries, illnesses, or disabilities perform everyday activities. “I just really thought it was cool,” she says. “It’s really interesting how my life has come full circle to be what it is today.”

Kmieciak said growing up she was drawn to making friends with kids with disabilities, though it often caused her to get mocked. “Different is cool to me,” Kmieciak said. “When I got older, it never fazed me,” she said of the teasing.

In second grade at Kingsley Elementary in Naperville she learned sign language from a neighbor and in fourth and fifth grades she ate lunch with students she befriended who had disabilities. While in high school at Naperville Central, Kmieciak job-shadowed with the South East Association for Special Parks and Recreation and was a peer leader in the Naperville Central adapted physical education program. She would go on to study occupational therapy, earning her doctorate at Belmont University in Nashville, where she currently resides. Kmieciak said she hopes to move back to the Naperville area to be closer to family.

The children’s book she published last year was drawn from her experiences in college when she was looking at wheelchair accessibility around Nashville. Despite public spaces being required to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, she found accessibility difficult at times. “I couldn’t even get in the front door,” she says.

Her first book, written under the name Dr. Nicole Julia, is Gary’s Gigantic Dream. It’s about a young giraffe who uses a wheelchair and discovers independence and the ability to pursue his dreams. Other books in her Able Fables collection will feature other animals with different issues, such as a facial deformity and heart defect.

What brings her pride is that 20 percent of the profits from her books go to help build inclusive playgrounds, where children of all abilities can play together. Kmieciak says she’s donated nearly $4,000 to inclusive playgrounds in two months. Her goal is to donate $50,000 in 2020. While many playgrounds are ADA compliant, Kmieciak said they often are not inclusive. Inclusive playgrounds, she said, “go above and beyond ADA standards” and are universally designed for all people.

“We think playgrounds are just for kids,” Kmieciak says, but parents, grandparents and caregivers visit parks with their children and often want to get close or onto the playground equipment with their kids. “I have a dream to build my own inclusive playground”—something Kmieciak estimates costs between $600,000 and $4 million.

Because such a venture will require time to raise the funds and a lot of community support, she says in the meantime she wants to keep conversations about inclusion in the forefront and hopes to share her book with students in Naperville area schools.

To learn more about Kmieciak and Gary’s Gigantic Dream, visit

Photo Courtesy Nicole Kmieciak