Growing, Learning and Sharing-a National Conference for Down Syndrome Recap

As an organization, we look forward to our National Conference each year because it means we have the opportunity to network with the other incredible Playhouses and national staff, learn by attending important discussions and share our local Madison best practices.


Our local Playhouse collaborates with all the Wisconsin Playhouses because we are truly better together!

After the 2021 conference the Madison, Milwaukee and Wausau Playhouses decided to have regular connection meetings to share struggles, wins and best practices with each other. This year we made a statement with our matching shirts and enjoyed getting to celebrate each other’s accomplishments in person.

Our local Playhouse was celebrated for the robust behind the scenes work of our staff and volunteers!

The National Office has created 7 different Standards of Execution (SOE) which guide local Playhouses do to our very best in serving our families. There is a robust list of work needed to complete these standards and there are 3 levels of achievement; baseline, strong and center of excellence.  Our team has worked incredibly hard this year and received awards for all 7 of the SOE’s! The next time you’re in the Playhouse be sure to check out our award wall!

  • Strong:
    • Programs and Operations and Facility
  • Center of Excellence:
    • Marketing
    • Donation Processing and Data Management
    • HR & Volunteer Management
    • Financial Health
    • Board Health and Strategy

Our local Playhouse was well represented!

  • We were honored to contribute on 6 different topics throughout the week.
    • On Thursday our Speech and Language Therapists, Kimberly Caul, Cameron Bilardello and Kasey Abrahamsen, from UW Speech and Hearing Clinic presented on communication strategies with our participants
    • On Friday our Site Director, Kelly Antonson, presented on 3 topics that included University Partnerships, Salesforce reporting and best practices on Empowering and Retaining Employees. Our past Board President, Julie Byrnes, also led a GiGi’s at Home Round Table for her new role as Executive Director of the Virtual Playhouse.
    • On Saturday our Math Coordinator, Anne Ernst, brought her expertise as a Physical Therapist and was part of a discussion on meeting the needs of all our participants including autism, sensory and physical needs for all our programs.

We had a large group of staff and dedicated volunteers attend this year and each person came away with awesome learnings, which we are sharing below.

The driving force behind all the work we do behind the scenes is our families.

Every decision made, every action took and everything we implement starts with the question – ‘how will this benefit our families?’. We are incredibly proud of the work done here in Madison because we are incredibly proud to have the chance to serve the Down syndrome community.


Playhouse Reflections:

We asked everyone that attended the conference for one word that described their experience. Here are some of those responses:

Anne Ernst: Smile

I smiled watching the self-advocates represent the Down syndrome community in so many ways. From introducing all the presenters, to asking thought provoking questions, to participate with their ideas during the presentations and roundtables, to sharing their stories with the entire conference, to dancing the night away, all with their amazing smiles.

I learned how incredible our Madison Playhouse Community is.  From our board who took the time out of the work and family schedules to our Playhouse community, to our volunteers, to our awe-inspiring staff.  We have a really solid foundation to build on and dreamers to push our Playhouse to extraordinary heights.


Susan Torgrude: Affirming

It was affirming to see accomplishments achieved and recognized as a result of great teamwork and also support of others in the Network.  Madison has an outstanding team, but I like to think of the Network as a big family with people ready to help when asked.


Sarah Berndt: Uplifting

As both a Playhouse Mom and new board member, I was blown away by each and every person I met. I was inspired by the sheer number of people passionate about GiGi’s; by the people with Down syndrome who spoke and helped facilitate the conference; and by the thought, research and time spent developing impactful programs and ways to raise awareness.


But most of all, I was inspired by those who choose to give their time and talents, day in and day out, that DON’T have a loved one in their life with Down syndrome or a personal connection to this community. I mean, that’s the definition of good, right? Seeing a need or a cause and advocating because it’s the right thing to do, selflessly. Kelly, Courtney, and others on our board, I’m looking at you (and trying not to cry… again!).


Julie Byrnes: Regenerating


Being around our peers and learning from the national staff and playhouse experts across the network is always inspiring. It regenerates my passion to work harder for our mission and to do so with an amazing team of colleagues.


Zane Torgrude: Rewarding

We were recognized and awarded for our accomplishments

Jacob Donohue: Invigorating

I chose that word because it was invigorating to see such a large and passionate group of people come together to celebrate something so awesome! To be a part of and to advocate for such a welcoming, passionate, amazing, organization (which is made up of mostly all volunteers) continues to wow me every day.

Kelly Antonson: Rejuvenated

The passion of our entire network always leaves me in awe, having the chance to learn from such a dedicated group of people lights a fire in me to continue to find ways to make our Playhouse stronger. There is so much to reflect on at the end of the year and having this shared experience with our local team and colleagues across Playhouses is the catalyst I need to start the next year strong!

Courtney Gamer: Motivated

This was my first conference and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was exciting to learn more about a wide variety of topics and gave me tons of ideas for things we can implement locally.


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