With their Rockin’ With Ruby concert, Ruby’s Rainbow helps fund higher education for young men and women with Down syndrome.

Ruby (left) and Liz Plachta

By Cy White, Photos courtesy of Liz Plachta

It all started with an extra chromosome. That’s when Liz Plachta’s life took a shift she could have never expected. Her second daughter, Ruby, was born with Down syndrome, a condition in which someone is born with 47 instead of 46 chromosomes. This causes mild to moderate developmental disabilities. For Plachta, it was a gift that she never expected. “That little extra chromosome is pretty magical,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the world needs to know how amazing this little peanut is.’ I want the world to see what I see in her, that she’s amazing and capable. She was the most determined little baby and still is the most determined little kid I’ve ever seen.”

Determined to contribute to research and awareness surrounding Down syndrome, Plachta conceived of Ruby’s Rainbow, an organization whose mission is to aid those also living with the condition further their education with a scholarship program. With the Rockin’ With Ruby concert, the organization raises money to keep upping the ante and providing more monetary support for young adults with Down syndrome.

Tell us about Ruby’s Rainbow.

[After Ruby was born], I got home and my heart just kept telling me I needed to do something, you know. There was something that I needed to do for this amazing community of people. I was super laser focused on the future: Was she going to have friends? Was she going to have a job she loves? Be accepted by society? Was she going to have a community? My friends and my community have always been my world and my lifeline, so of course I wanted that for her. I wanted her to have all the same things that her older sister, Ella Mae, had, all the same opportunities. 

I got home and just had this tugging in my heart to [fund]college scholarships. So I looked at my husband one day when Ruby was about 6 months old and said, ‘I want to help somebody with Down syndrome go to college.’ I didn’t know at that time of people with Down syndrome who were going to college.

Back then, I wanted to find that one person that’s going for their college dreams and help them. Come to find out, there are amazing programs across the nation that are specifically for people that have intellectual disabilities that help give them the support they need to come on campus, explore different educational tracks and be a part of college campus life, gain independence and confidence and all these things that we got to do when we graduated high school. Learning from making mistakes and being on your own and not having your parents hovering over you telling you right from wrong. 

Ruby’s Rainbow scholarship recipients

That first year of Ruby’s Rainbow, I had a goal of one $2,000 scholarship, and we were able to give 11 $2,000 scholarships. This was in 2012 when we gave out our first scholarships. So I was just mind blown. My heart was smiling so big. It made me realize that people were dreaming and believing with me, and not only that, taking a step forward and investing in the futures of people rocking it like Ruby.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of running Ruby’s Rainbow?

This past year, we exceeded granting over $2 million in scholarships. For reference, that first year, we granted $22,000 or something like that. This past year, we granted $483,219 to amazing and capable humans that are rocking that extra chromosome for their dreams of higher education and independence. Also, about 10% of our recipients are degree-seeking. They’re going for their bachelor’s or their associate’s. We even have one recipient going for her master’s; she’s the only person in the world with Down syndrome who’s doing that. I get a little teary-eyed at the fact that I get to not only show the worth of people with Down syndrome but also help them go for their dreams and be the best they can be.

Tell us about the Rockin’ with Ruby event.

Rachel Smith [of Pride Socks]and I are really good friends. She is just an amazing human. She has the best energy. She’s got the biggest and kindness loving heart. When we first started collaborating on Ruby’s Dream Big socks, we just thought, ‘Let’s do a party!’ People with Downs syndrome have that extra chromosome, so we always say, ‘Rockin’ that extra chromosome.’ So it’s kind of a play on rockin’ that extra chromosome. We just really wanted to bring the community together. All people love to dance, but people with Down syndrome really love to dance. We’ve got a photo booth; we’ll have adult beverages for anyone that’s 21 and over. And it’s just a feel-good evening.

Rockin’ With Ruby is a live music extravaganza that we’re throwing as a kickoff to our 321 Pledge, which is our biggest fundraising and awareness campaign of the year. It pretty much dictates how much money we’re going to give out every year. Last year, in the two-week pledge period we raised about $467,000 and were able to give up 483 scholarships. It’s such an exciting time for me, just to be able to shout and share stories. This year we’re sharing four amazing stories. Two recipients that we have going to Villanova. Aiden is in the marching band at Villanova, and Ellie is a Villanova cheerleader.

Rockin’ With Ruby

Aiden really touches my heart because Ruby plays trombone. She’s in middle school now; she’s a sixth grader. You know, it’s those things that I see and envision for my own kid. Aiden’s in the Villanova VUnited Scholars Program, and just seeing him out there, gaining the independence and that confidence and living his life and chasing his dreams. He’s really into cooking and wants to be a chef and have his own business. He’s already selling his own salsa. He makes his own Aden Salsa; it’s delicious.

Then we are sharing another recipient this month. Rachel Hanlon is going for her Master of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute, which is amazing. It’s very incredible. We’re also sharing Ruby’s story. The whole theme this year is about inclusion and how inclusion has really changed the lives of not only our recipients, but the communities around them. All it takes is somebody believing in you and raising the expectation. 

That fundraising drive kicks off March 7, and March 4 is the Rockin’ With Ruby event. We have two live bands: The Anna Larson band and The Reverent Few. It’s gonna be super fun. Ruby will be there sharing her story of inclusion.

Talk about the 321 Pledge.

World Down Syndrome Day is March 21. People with Down Syndrome have three copies of their 21st chromosome, which is why March 21, 3/21, is the day that we celebrate them and just shout to the rooftops how much we love them and how worthy they are of all the things. During this two-week pledge drive, we ask people to donate 21 bucks, just as a little nod to the 21st chromosome, and share [the pledge]with three people. Another huge part of our mission is not just raising the funds for the scholarships, but also raising awareness. So for us, sharing is just as important as any donation.

Our goal this year is to raise $500,000 by March 21. Being able to have a front-row seat into the lives of people with Down syndrome and their accomplishments and not only what they’re accomplishing, but also how they’re changing the narrative and changing hearts and minds—just being a part of that in some small way has really filled my heart and my life with so much joy.

You’ve raised over $2 million, helped nearly 600 people fund their higher education. Ruby’s Rainbow has had national recognition, and you’ve even spoken with Al Roker. Did you expect the response that you’ve gotten?

No way! First of all, I didn’t know a single thing about starting a nonprofit. When Ruby was born, I was an esthetician who loved helping people with their hair problems and their skin problems. I loved going to work and then coming home and leaving my work there and being done.

Like I said, I had this idea shortly after Ruby was born and really out of sheer drive and passion and wanting to help other people started googling things, like, ‘Okay, well, how do you start a nonprofit? What do you need to do?’ I don’t have any business experience or anything, so it was just a whole bunch of people coming together, saying, ‘Hey, I believe in you, and I believe in your daughter.’ It’s just this rad community that surrounds me and really helped to kind of kick this whole thing off. So yeah, I cannot believe it. Like, Al Roker interviewed us for the {Today Show}!

Dates to remember:

Rockin’ With Ruby: March 4
321 Pledge Fundraiser: March 7 to March 21
World Down Syndrome Awareness Day: March 21

Links to remember:

Join the Rockin’ With Ruby Party: bit.ly/rockin2023
Take the 321 Pledge: 321pledge.org


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