Nikki Vaughn loves her job.
Vaughn has been reporting for work at Deer Creek Animal Hospital nearly every day for the last 25 years. Her loyalty and consistency amaze her bosses, who can’t imagine a better employee.
It’s all the more remarkable considering that many people thought Vaughn might never be able to work at all. Nikki Vaughn, 42, has Down syndrome.
As Deer Creek Animal Hospital celebrates its 25th year, Vaughn’s contributions to the business are being formally recognized. Hospital founders Dr. Ray Cox and Dr. Dan Brod decided to honor Vaughn with a plaque and flowers during the Summerset Festival on Sept. 20.
“There’s a deeper meaning to what we’re doing here,” Cox said a few days before honoring his longtime employee.
Cox has spoken to veterinary groups across the country, sometimes to hundreds of people at a time, and never felt nervous. But he was a little anxious before delivering the speech at Summerset to honor Vaughn.
“This is a huge deal for me, and I need to make sure I describe everything right,” Cox said. “It’s going to be enjoyable, but at the same time it’s a pretty big responsibility to be the person who tries to get up and tell people how we feel about Nikki.”
Cox said that as plans were put together for celebrating the hospital’s 25th year, it was clear Vaughn had to be part of the observance.
“Nikki’s been with us the whole time,” Cox said. “How many businesses have someone who’s worked there for 25 years, and add to that the person has Down syndrome? It seemed like the perfect time.”
Vaughn lives with her mother, June, in a modest South Jeffco home, the same house the family has lived in since 1972. She attended high school at the Robert G. Weiland School, which served special-needs students. She was a cheerleader and a prom queen, and she participated in nearly every extracurricular activity, including the Special Olympics, where she’s racked up more than 40 gold medals in track and field, swimming and gymnastics.
She and her mother love to travel, as the two have friends all over the country.
June Vaughn said she once thought her daughter didn’t need to work. But when she talked to Cox all those years ago about finding some work for Nikki, she realized her daughter could handle a lot.
Nikki started by cleaning the parking lot, sweeping out the stairwells and performing basic responsibilities around the office.
When asked how she liked her duties in those days, Nikki Vaughn sighs and says, “Not very.”
June Vaughn said that one day Nikki told Cox she was tired of that work and wanted to be in the office so she could wear nice clothes. She was given an office role, and has worked her way up to a position just under the hospital administrator.
“It’s amazing what (people with Down syndrome) really can do if you can take the time to teach them,” June Vaughn said. “They can be productive citizens just like anyone else.”
Cox echoed June Vaughn’s sentiment.
“She’s not nearly as handicapped as people want to treat her,” Cox said.
June Vaughn hopes that Nikki’s story of perseverance and success in life shows other families who deal with Down syndrome that anything is possible with love, encouragement and a bit of discipline.
Most of the Vaughn family came to the ceremony Sept. 20 to watch Cox take the stage to honor Nikki. After the short speech, Cox and Nikki shared a dance, a tradition the two observe at the beginning of every Christmas party, or any time they’re in the same place and music starts.
Afterward, Cox said Nikki is truly one of a kind.
“She always has a good day,” Cox said. “You come up to her at work and ask her how she’s doing, and she makes everybody feel better. You can’t help but have a better day.”
Nikki’s dedication to her job and her friends at work seems second nature to her, and she probably wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no hesitation in Nikki’s answer to how long she wants to stay at Deer Creek Animal Hospital.
Smiling, she offers a simple, one-word answer: “Forever.”