We received our official membership to the Down syndrome community on April 21, 2017. That was the day that our son Hudson entered our lives. Since that very first day, I knew that we were joining a special community full of passionate people. GiGi’s Playhouse is blessed with many of these advocates and has played a significant role in my Down syndrome journey since last April and I am excited to share my story with you.
The way our family chose to share Hudson’s diagnosis was right after the GiGi’s Playhouse 5K last summer. I remember putting on that bright orange shirt and on the back where it said “I run for” – I wrote my son’s name, HUDSON, in big bold letters. This was the first time I had publically recognized his diagnosis and I felt empowered and cheerful. I remember meeting Nancy Gianni, the mama who founded GiGi’s Playhouse, at this race. Her smile, energy and warmth were comforting to me in those early weeks of processing the news of Hudson’s diagnosis. David and I gathered with other families, met new people, but mostly felt the love and embrace of the GiGi’s Playhouse community.
A few weeks later, I went to my first LMNOP class with a few moms that I had met. I watched all of the babies and toddlers sing songs, read books, shake their shakers and sign to one another. I felt excited that Hudson would get to be a part of this. At the time, Hudson was only 8 weeks old – and while he was asleep the whole class, I couldn’t wait to bring him back when he was older and have him participate and learn with the other children.
After my maternity leave ended, I went back to my corporate job for 6 months. But I wanted be home with Hudson. I wanted to be involved in my child’s development in a very personal, first-hand way. We have been blessed with extraordinary therapists, specialists and caregivers for Hudson – but there was an ache in my mama heart to be there more, to do more, to see more, and to help him more. Thankfully my husband shared and supported my desire, and at the beginning of January 2018, I left the ‘traditional’ corporate world and started this new chapter.
In the midst of change (and a lot of adapting!), GiGi’s was there for me J Every Tuesday morning, Hudson and I get ready for the day, pack snacks, stock our diaper bag, and head out on the road for the 45 minute drive to GiGi’s Playhouse flagship location in Hoffman Estates, IL. Upon every arrival, we are greeted with big smiles and warm hugs. Not only was this helpful for me during my transition, but I was grateful that my son would have more people to love on him and support him.
If you haven’t been to a LMNOP (Language Music ‘N Our Peeps) class, let me paint a picture for you. Imagine walking into a colorful room full of smiling faces. There are purple, green, red, yellow and blue dots creating a circle on the floor. You meet eyes with other caretakers of our sweet kiddos with Down syndrome and there is a familiar comfort we all share knowing we get to be a part of this particular community. The class starts with two of the speech students asking everyone to come to the stage and begin singing our “hello song.” I love watching the children as they clap their hands together, smile or just look at you as we all sing about how excited we are to see them. We all want love, acceptance and friendship and that’s what this class helps create for our children. After the hello song, we go through a few signs that fit the theme of the day. There’s usually a craft (although Hudson just likes to stick everything in his mouth at this point), bubbles, book reading, playing with the parachute, the shaker song, and lots of fun songs in between. The students guide us through every part and encourage participation while giving our kiddos lots of praise and attention. The developmental benefits for Hudson and the rest of the LMNOP kiddos are clearly present and wonderfully powerful.
But if that wasn’t enough to convince that this FREE class – yes I said it ‘FREE’ – was worth your time, let me tell you about the teachers. The teachers at LMNOP are students through a local university and most are focused on speech therapy. At our location, there are 5 young women who teach weekly. At their core, these ladies have hearts of platinum. Their level of maturity, compassion, and kindness is far beyond what I’ve experienced with most college students. Since these students get to interact with our little kiddos, we only want the best, and GiGi’s has done a phenomenal job vetting these specialists to lead the LMNOP class. I’ve enjoyed watching the teachers grow through instructing this class, learning about their lives, and my heart sings when I watch them hold, kiss, snuggle, coo and sing to my precious little Huddy Buddy. I hope that all young children can grow up to have beautiful souls like these students – one that is not only open to or aware of disabilities but sees the splendor of those who have Down syndrome and choose to focus their careers on supporting those with special needs! What an exquisite gift to give another human being.
I don’t know if they will read this blog post – but ladies, if you are – please know that what you are doing makes a difference! You are important not only because of what you are doing now with LMNOP but because I know that this a stepping stone to even more work as you progress through your education and career. The ripple effects of your impact have yet to been seen but they begin here at LMNOP; I cannot wait to see the lives you will influence and change!
Once class is over, the parents can mingle and kiddos can keep playing. But if you want to know where you can find me, I’ll be grabbing my baby, my wallet and heading next door to Hugs & Mugs. This connected café and gift shop is run by the GiGi University graduates and support staff. You can buy some GiGi’s Playhouse swag, a cup of coffee, milkshakes and gelato…but even better you can purchase personalized items like coffee mugs, cell phone cases, water bottles and picture frames that are all designed and created by the Hugs & Mugs staff. This is an open café meaning you’ll see field trips, Bible study groups, corporate outings, or friends just wanting to meet for a cup of joe. I think it’s important that the world understands how invaluable a program and place like Hugs & Mugs is to the Down syndrome community. The employees gain transferrable skills that not only benefit the café but any future businesses that hire Hugs & Mugs staff. This opens the door for so many individuals with IDD around the country and world! This takes away the stigma, makes us a more inclusive and supportive society and creates a more vibrant and accepting business world. I love stopping by and watching this happen – I’m grateful to live at a time where this is happening and that my son will grow up in this type of world!
After I grab my hot chocolate supreme (they know my ‘usual’), Hudson and I make the haul back home. He usually dozes off in the backseat and I sit at the wheel sipping my cocoa and feeling hope. That’s what GiGi’s Playhouse means to me – they have provided me with support and resources at various points in my 10 month Down syndrome journey. The even more remarkable part is that we are just scratching the surface with our relationship with GiGi’s Playhouse. There are so many more programs Hudson will get to participate in, more children to meet and become friends with, and more families to love on as H grows up. So while our story has just begun but GiGi’s has made an impact that will last a lifetime.
– Hudson’s Mama