UIC OT Department Named GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago 2020 Partner of the Year


Pictured back row from left to right, GiGi’s Playhouse President, Evguenia Popova, Site Coordinator, Grace Glenny, UIC Student, Julie Suh, UIC Student, Holly Woyome. Front row from left to right, Professor and Head of the Department of Occupational Therapy at UIC, Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar, PhD, Playhouse Yoga Intern, Sam R., Playhouse Yoga Intern Brenda V., Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy at UIC, Jenica Lee.

We are so excited to announce that UIC Department of Occupational Therapy has been recognized as GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago 2020 Community Partner of the Year for their continued support and commitment to servicing our members. UIC has been involved in many facets of GiGi’s Playhouse’s development in the last year, especially as we have made the tough transition to online programming. From hosting classes to program development, UIC students, graduates, and community members have dedicated their time and talents to keeping a smile on our members’ faces. Below are some highlights of UIC’s involvement with GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago:

  • Jasmine Brown and Anthony Mercado conducted a program evaluation of our volunteer program which helped us find strategies to improve volunteer retention, collaborate with community partners, and discuss options for including volunteers with disabilities, specifically volunteers with Down syndrome.
  • Vivian (MS’ 19, OTD ’20) began volunteering at GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago through UIC in 2018. She has served as a group leader, Therapeutic Program Committee member, and has now eagerly joined the Board of Directors as Events Chair. Vivian is committed to providing free educational and therapeutic programming to individuals with Down syndrome, their families, and the Chicago community. When reflecting on what it means to be an OT in the Playhouse setting, Vivian shares, “It has been energizing to shift my focus as an OT from the person level to the group/population level through my work at GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago. Specifically, we have challenged ourselves and other local organizations to be more inclusive by offering leadership positions and job opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome. I am most proud to have secured grant funding from Lululemon to have two individuals with Down syndrome become certified pediatric yoga instructors. As they complete their training, these individuals will join our Dance/Yoga program in leadership roles as instructors.”
  • Vanessa Peixoto-Honorato, along with many other UIC students, volunteer frequently by running 1-on-1 tutoring sessions and group programs. Vanessa shares, “I began volunteering at GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago in 2018, when I was an undergraduate student at UIC. Once I learned more about GiGi’s mission and vision to work towards acceptance of individuals with Down syndrome in their families, schools and communities, I decided the place was a good fit for me and signed up to volunteer as an one-on-one Literacy tutor for one child. Today, I continue to be involved at GiGi’s through the UIC program’s Health and Diversity Academy, through which students support community organizations through service hours and projects. As a volunteer at GiGi’s over the past couple years I had so many opportunities to learn, to have fun, to apply what I have learned in the classroom as an OT student, and to build meaningful connections with participants, their families, volunteers, and staff.”
  • Sami Stevens led a team for our Get Down with Down Syndrome Dance-A-Thon, raising over $2,000 for our Playhouse! Sami writes, “Last fall I started a team in the GiGi’s Playhouse “Get Down with Down Syndrome Dance-A-Thon” for members of UIC’s occupational therapy program along with our family and friends. We ended up having 30 members and raised $2,050 which was over double our starting goal! It was such an incredible way to connect with members of our program while also supporting an organization with such a powerful drive for inclusion. GiGi’s Playhouse’s mission of acceptance for people with disabilities is so important, and I am so thankful to be involved with an organization that is making such a difference.”

This week, we had the opportunity to present our 2020 Community Partner Award to Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar, PhD, Professor and Head of the Department of Occupational Therapy at UIC College of Applied Health Sciences and Jenica Lee, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Occupational Therapy at University of Illinois at Chicago. It was a beautiful “Best of All” moment as Brenda and Sam, both Playhouse Yoga Inters, gave heartfelt and emotional speeches to Jenica and Yolanda, thanking them for their support to our Playhouse. Some tears and hugs were shared by all as the Playhouse filled with gratitude in honor of the incredible UIC OT Department team!


UIC OT Department has been and continues to be a leading community partner. We thank them for all of their support over the years, and we are exited to see our partnership grow in 2021!

1 Comment

  1. Roberta on July 22, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    Thank you all for what you do for our kids!

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