GiGi’s Playhouse – A place of hope

Over the course of the 2018-2019 school year my daughter, Nora, at the time a 13-year-old with Down Syndrome and recently diagnosed with Autism, found herself having behavioral “problems” according to her school. Like most families when the school staff informs you of something you think they are the experts and are doing everything in their power to help your child. Sadly, we were wrong to place our trust in the school district special education staff and administration. During this particular school year, my wife and I were told over and over Nora had behavioral problems and needed to leave the school district and go to an alternative school.

During the school year Nora was subject to restraints, secluded, separated from her peers, and sometimes spent eight hours a day in “her office” where she was  taught core subjects. Nora’s Office, as it was called, was a small room, with a desk, chair, file cabinet and a rocking chair, where only Nora was taught. There was even a sign saying “Nora’s Office” outside the room. If Nora exhibited good behavior and complied, she was allowed to stay in the resource room, but if she acted up in the slightest way she was taken arm and arm to “Nora’s Office” and restrained by school staff.

The situation with the school got so bad they called the cops on Nora and did so a total of seven times within a three-month time span. Almost every day my family would get a phone call to notify us that Nora had to be picked up because “her behavior was unsafe” and she was suspended for the remainder of the day. Every day my wife and I would pray that Nora would have a good day and have some measure of success at school, but there was none. We felt utterly defeated by the actions of the school district special education staff and principle. Our hope for Nora to continue her education had vanished.

During our emotionally drained year research became our number one priority, as the people we once trusted with Nora’s education had let us down. We knew finding where Nora could thrive was up to us. We not only wanted a program for Nora to learn academics but a place where she could feel safe and free of judgement. After months of research, my wife came across a place in Madison, WI called “GiGi’s Playhouse”. Naturally, I was skeptical at first and wondered if this was a place for children to learn through academic programs or just a hangout, where parents can drop off their kids and  “complain” about the system like so many events or groups have in common these days. We scheduled a visit.

In the Spring of 2019, we started our exploration of GiGi’s, the first person we met was a warm, caring and genuinely accepting of others, Julia Meyers, the Site Manager. If you have ever went to a place where your child could be for hours at a time, you know the first thing that happens is, the “standard tour of the grounds and this is what we do here at X, Y and Z facility”. However, Julia being the warm lovable person she is was not “all business” she introduced herself to me with a nice firm handshake, turned to Nora and instead of offering a hand, opened her arms and gave Nora a hug then said “would you like to look at some toys with me”?.  Julia played with Nora and let her get comfortable with the facility prior to the tour. From there I learned of the programs and how operations ran at GiGi’s while Nora explored Club GiGi.

The first class we signed up for was Creative Explorations, held every other Saturday, lead by Natalie, where kids could interact with each other while working on projects and play for an hour. While there, Nora had one of her “behavioral episodes.” Natalie, simply came over calmed Nora down by redirection and got her to refocus. I personally thought we were going to be asked to leave, like at school, but we weren’t. Nora was accepted, listened to and went back to the group without incident.

Eventually we signed up for reading and math tutoring at GiGi’s during the summer, because Nora was not allowed to go to summer school in her school district. I informed all the tutors that Nora can act out and what to be prepared for, because they needed to be safe and could be put in harm’s way. Each tutor after telling them what Nora does at school reassured me those behaviors won’t happen here and they were going to have a great time learning. Class after class Nora started to have fun while at GiGi’s, and was excited to get up out of bed and learn. A teenager, during the summer, excited to learn… yeah that happened! Gone were the days of Nora being sent home because of “safety concerns.” I started to learn my daughter has behavioral problems, but she is not the problem. Thanks to GiGi’s Playhouse Nora has found a place she loves and can learn once again. Her parents have found something once lost, HOPE.

Special thanks to all the staff and tutors who volunteer their time and worked with Nora. Suzan, Alexis, Kayla, and Katie, who’s combined efforts during the summer and fall 2019 helped Nora in ways words cannot describe. You are the angles that walk among us.

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