Our Team

Executive Director (part-time): Jessica Allen

Treasurer: John Fisher

Additional Board Members and Committee leads:

GiGi's Kitchen Program Lead: Laurie Maddex

Marketing & Communications: Denise Faulkner

Parent’s Council: Lindsy Maners

Site Coordinator: Melissa Buczek

Events Lead: Danielle Fletcher

GiGiFIT Program Coordinator: Ashley Heiligenstadt

Community Outreach: Carin Cox Miller

Literacy Coordinator: Olivia Draeger


Jessica Allen, PhD, Executive Director (part-time)


Jessica relocated to Charlotte in early 2017 and was immediately focused on opening a GiGi’s Playhouse. She is a Co-Founder of GiGi’s Playhouse Charlotte and the current board President. Previously, Jessica spent 10+ years in academic medicine. She holds a PhD in Immunobiology and trained at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University where she published several high-profile manuscripts. She is a well-respected professional with extensive grant writing experience. Her advocacy for individuals with Down syndrome began with the birth of her first son, Everett. She is extremely passionate about what he and others with Down syndrome can achieve. Jessica was able to witness firsthand the life-changing impact of a playhouse when GiGi’s Playhouse Raleigh opened during her son’s first year of life. She feels truly privileged to work alongside this team to bring free educational, therapeutic and career development programs to the Greater Charlotte Down syndrome community.


John Fisher, Treasurer

John Fisher settled in Charlotte in early 2016 with his wife and three children after living all around the country, from Florida to California. While not a native of Charlotte, he and his family found a home here and love the community. Service and a keen interest for the welfare of others are important values to him and his family, and are what led him to volunteering with GiGi's Playhouse.

Professionally, John works as an accountant. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting, he went to work for leading companies in the alternative investment space, and currently manages a team of accountants specializing in private equity for Apex Group Ltd in Charlotte. He is now delighted to put his professional expertise to good use, helping the community through GiGi's Playhouse.


Laurie Maddex, GiGi's Kitchen Program Lead


Laurie Maddex has been in and around the Down syndrome community in several different capacities since her son, Chase, was born in 2007 and was diagnosed with Ds and Hirschsprung’s Disease. She and her husband, Bryan, immediately jumped in- volunteering with the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte and investigating every possible outlet for learning about Ds. Their Down syndrome journey didn’t stop there, but led them to Ukraine in 2011, where they adopted their son Zeke at age 4 ½.

She is a certified elementary and special education teacher, spending 10+ years in the elementary classrooms in Florida and in Union County, NC, focusing on inclusion of students with exceptional needs, and later writing mathematics curriculum and coaching/training the UCPS elementary educators.

Presently, Laurie juggles motherhood with 4 boys, working as a Loan Originator for Amerifirst Home Mortgage, giving back to the Ds community through IEP advocacy and teacher/parent support, and now connecting the residents and businesses of the Charlotte area to GiGi’s Playhouse.


Denise Faulkner, Marketing/Public Relations


Denise Faulkner relocated to the Charlotte area with her husband and three children in July of 2016. She has more than 15 years of experience in corporate communications working primarily in the financial services and insurance industries. Earlier in her career, Denise worked in public relations where she provided a wide range of companies with media relations and communications support.

Since her nephew Shane was born, Denise has been looking for an opportunity to lend her skillset and support to the DS community. Shortly after moving to Charlotte she was excited to learn of the plans for a local GiGi’s Playhouse and signed up to volunteer.

Denise looks forward to building relationships within the local community and raising awareness and support for GiGi’s Playhouse Charlotte and individuals with Down syndrome.


Lindsy Maners, Parent’s Council


Lindsy has called Charlotte home for nearly 30 years. When her son, Branson, was born 9 years ago, she decided to step away from her corporate sales and marketing career to stay at home and raise him. Lindsy is actively involved in fundraising, event planning and community outreach for several local non-profit organizations. She has been heavily involved in the Down syndrome community since Branson's birth including participation in social and educational events, fundraising and increasing parental connectivity. Lindsy is passionate about advocacy, spreading awareness and acceptance, and is very excited for the many opportunities GiGi’s Playhouse has to offer the community. She looks forward to acting as a liaison between GiGi’s Playhouse and the families it serves.


Melissa Buczek, Site Coordinator


Melissa has been a resident of Charlotte since 2012. She has been on the Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte board since its inception; previously she focused on events but she is now stepping into her role as Site Coordinator. Melissa holds a BA in linguistics and has a decade of experience in education including 6 years as a teacher at various CMS schools and two and a half years as an English teacher in South Korea. During her time in South Korea Melissa was recognized nationally for her success in planning lessons for early elementary students.

Melissa is a visionary; in addition to her role in opening Gigi’s Charlotte, Melissa founded an annual international festival at South Mecklenburg High School, she directed the first musical production in more than 15 years at Garinger High School, and she co-founded a still-active ballroom dance club at her alma mater. Melissa’s first son, William, was diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after he was born in 2016. That was the beginning of a journey that has led her to become a passionate advocate for individuals with special needs in the Charlotte community. She has a second son, Matthew, who was born in 2017. Melissa is thrilled to be a part of the Gigi’s Charlotte team and cannot wait to see the positive impact she knows GiGi’s Playhouse will have in Charlotte.


Danielle Fletcher, Events Lead


Danielle is married and the mother of a beautiful energetic daughter. She has lived in Charlotte for nineteen years and is proud to call the Queen City home. Danielle has a heart to help and to give to others; volunteering has been a part of her life since she was young.

Danielle was motivated to volunteer at GiGi’s Playhouse with the desire to work with an organization whose vision and mission resonated with her own beliefs and with the hope to support and assist families of children and loved ones with Down syndrome. She has over 15 years of event and meeting planning experience and is passionate to inspire others to celebrate life. She is thrilled to bring her passions, gifts and talents to GiGi’s Playhouse as the Events Lead.


Ashley Heiligenstadt, GiGiFIT Program Coordinator

Ashley moved to Charlotte 5 years ago after receiving her degree in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science from James Madison University.

While at JMU, Ashley worked at the Morrison Bruce Center developing programs for women and girls that promoted active and healthy lifestyles. She also served as a golf and fitness coordinator for the Overcoming Barriers program which focused on motor skill development for children with varying disabilities.

Since then she has worked with athletes of all ages teaching proper body mechanics and overall health and wellness as a Strength and Conditioning Coach in the Charlotte area. She is so excited to continue to get back to her passion of working in the Down Syndrome community through the GiGiFit program.



Carin Cox Miller, Community Outreach

I am a busy mom to 13 year old twin girls and an 11 year old step-son. They keep me on my toes. When I’m not helping my clients buy or sell a home, you’ll often find me at Soccer Games, Science Fairs, volunteering at GiGi's Playhouse, or the local YMCA.
One of my favorite things to do with my family here in Charlotte is heading to the US National Whitewater Center and climbing the ropes courses.

After attending the University of Central Florida, I spent several years with Merrill Lynch in Jacksonville, FL where I obtained my Series 7 brokers license. After the birth of my twins, I opened a successful eCommerce business that I managed for 9 years before finally following my heart and going into the family business of Real Estate.

I was introduced to GiGi's Playhouse through one of the founding board members. I began co-teaching GiGi's Kitchen and fell in love with GiGi's Playhouse. I knew this was where heart belonged and where I wanted to commit my time to bring awareness about Down Syndrome.



Olivia Draeger, Literacy Coordinator

Born and raised in Northern Illinois, Olivia earned her Associate's of Arts Degree and moved to Charlotte in 2019 to complete her BA in English, concentrating in Education and Childhood Studies from the University of North Carolina - Charlotte. She also currently serves in the United States Army National Guard full-time.

Olivia was introduced to GiGi's Playhouse Rockford in 2011 where she volunteered her time among various programs including Teen Time, LMNOP, and Math & Literacy Tutoring, and she has held multiple positions within the GiGi's community since then. She was incredibly honored to have been awarded with the 2016 Youth Volunteer Award and loves supporting the programs this organization has to offer.

Olivia grew up in Dance Studios and Community Theater which sparked her interest in directing the first GiGi's Playhouse Rockford theater production, "The Wizard of Oz", in 2018. Because of the work Olivia continues to do through GiGi's, not only does it allow her to help individuals grow and learn, but it also has taught her the importance of strength and acceptance. She is inspired every day by the GiGi's family and support of the community, and is thrilled to work hand-in-hand with such a dedicated team.