Simple Gifts Foundation—Realizing a Dream For Those with Special Needs

June 2015 View more


Donna Swanson, Executive Director

Even in a city like Naperville, where altruism flows like water along the Riverwalk, Donna Swanson still stands out like a beacon. It’s no surprise that the executive director of a nonprofit enjoys helping others, or even that she started the organization herself, but knowing, as a college kid, you wanted to adopt a child with Down syndrome? That you wanted to start your own nonprofit? Then, after achieving those goals, acting as a surrogate so your friend could have twins? That’s something special.

“I’ve always been fascinated by advocating for others,” says Swanson, a qualified social worker with the Naperville Police Department.

In 2001 she adopted her daughter Kamille. “The adoption world has changed,” she said. “I’m a single mother. I did have to complete some classes, but two days after I did, the case worker called.” Kami, now 14, knows she has two families, her birth family with whom she is in regular contact, and Swanson, who is her mom. She’s a high functioning Down’s child who enjoys horseback riding. Swanson later gave birth to her biological daughter Abigail, who is 12.

Realizing a Dream

In college, Swanson dreamed of opening her own food pantry, but realized that was already pretty well covered in Illinois. Instead, her love for Down’s children led her to a different path.

She began her dream by gathering together like-minded friends and colleagues.

“We started a foundation called Simple Gifts because helping others is like giving a gift and expecting nothing in return,” Swanson explained. “But it really puts people on a better path.”

The nonprofit organization primarily helps special needs children and their families, but will help any family in need in DuPage, Will, or Kendal Counties. The organization provides everything from backpacks filled with essential school supplies at the start of the school year, to gifts at Christmas for the whole family. There are also other special events throughout the year where everyone can come together for fun.

“I love it, it’s very rewarding for my entire board,” Swanson said. “My dad gets to play Santa. You really get to watch the kids grow. They come with a hug and they leave with a hug. It’s a gift for them and it’s a gift for us.”

A Passion for Helping Others

As if caring for two children, working, and running a nonprofit were not enough, in 2009, Swanson decided to help two close friends by becoming their surrogate. The process turned out to be more complicated than everyone had expected, but Swanson was successfully implanted with two embryos.

“It was so emotional, but not only because I was happy things had finally worked,” she said. “My mom suddenly died and I ended up having an ultrasound the day before her funeral. I was so sad on one hand, but so happy on the other.”

The pregnancy went well and Swanson was able to carry out the pregnancy to full term.

“My friend came to all my doctor appointments and she and her husband were there for the birth,” Swanson said. The twins, now five, are happy and healthy in their Minnesota home.

“It was a special thing that not many people get to experience,” Swanson said. “I am so happy they got the family they wanted. It was never a problem for me because I knew I was carrying the children for them.”

A Helping Hand

The Simple Gifts Foundation hosts several fundraisers throughout the year to help those in need. They are always willing to accept donations of time or money. For more information about Simple Gifts and how you can help, visit

Photo by Robyn Sheldon