At our recent “i have a Voice” Gala, we celebrated 10 years of supporting the voices of individuals with Down syndrome here in the Quad Cities. Part of that celebration was traveling down memory lane with a panel of speakers that have been involved with the local Playhouse since the beginning. They each brought a different story of involvement, impact, and passion. We’re now bringing those stories to you here in our blog. We hope you will enjoy this 5 part series from their viewpoints with the how and why our Playhouse began and our dreams for the future.
Michelle Hughes was the first to share. She is a founder and former Site Director for GiGi’s Playhouse Quad Cities and is still a part of the GiGi’s Playhouse organization as part of the national office staff where she has the honor of helping manage our almost 55 open locations and 6 startups.
She kicked off the night by sharing the early days of bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to the Quad Cities.
This journey began with a group of people with a deep-seeded love for their children with Down syndrome who became friends, then family and then volunteer business partners.
My personal story in this journey began in August 2004 when we welcomed our 3rd son into the world. A beautiful baby boy with brilliant blue eyes, petite features and the sweetest disposition – he was a dream! The day after his birth was the first time I heard the words “Down syndrome.” I held my baby boy tightly, cried, and whispered to him promising him that I would give him a great life. Little did I know that he would be the one to give me a great life.
Shortly after Nate’s diagnosis, I learned about a new Down syndrome awareness center in the Chicagoland area called GiGi’s! I hopefully thought that maybe one day they would expand to the Quad Cities. At that time there was nothing on the website that told how to start a location – our founder Nancy Gianni didn’t even know what expansion beyond the now flagship Hoffman Estates location would look like.
Among other information shared with me was the information of a mom named Mary Johnson who had put together a family group called The Up Side of Down syndrome and there were hosting their monthly gathering that very week. Excited and a bit scared, I walked in and quickly my vision of a support group where families sat in a circle and solemnly shared stories was replace with the reality of a family reunion atmosphere where we were welcomed with open arms and heartwarming hugs. Moms were passing babies and tending to their other children who were running about. Dads were talking, and many stories were shared about our children with Down syndrome’s latest achievements and challenges. Those Sundays once a month were something special and the opportunity for all of these families to connect provided the support, therapy and hope for our children’s futures. But as an unofficial organization and not having the technology we have today to help spread the word, many families did not know about this amazing resource.
Over the next several months and lots of research, I discovered that there was a national awareness event called “Buddy Walk” and we didn’t have one in the Quad Cities. After numerous phone calls to some of the others in the family group, courage from my dear neighbor and commitment of a sponsorship from my in-laws, the first Buddy Walk committee was formed. This group of parents with no fundraising or event experience, but driven by great love for their children, reached out to their families, friends and community connections and the first Buddy Walk was held in October 2005. This walk that we thought may attract 200-300 people, was a smashing success with over 800 people, raising more money than we had ever imagined. Families with loved ones with Down syndrome came from far and wide and the little family group realized that there was a far greater need for resources in the Quad Cities community.
Having learned a lot from that first walk, we gained the courage to do it again and immediately began talking about how we could improve this accidental success the following year.
On March 12, 2006, my Nate suffered a massive stroke while taking a nap. Our bright, energetic, happy boy suffered a severe brain injury as a result of the stroke, was in a coma and hospitalized for an extended period of time. There was talk of skipping Buddy Walk that year, but I knew that couldn’t happen. These amazing families pulled together again and I turned our hospital room into Buddy Walk central. Year two was another success and Nate was out of the hospital to celebrate with everyone.
In early 2007, despite additional hospitalizations, Nate blew us away with his amazing spirit and perseverance to work to regain skills. Most importantly his signature smile was back and his never-give-up attitude taught us all that anything is possible…if you just believe. Buddy Walk planning was underway and Nate’s 3rd birthday was right around the corner. But on August 1, 2007, just 18 days before his 3rd birthday, our sweet Nate unexpectedly gained his angel wings. Our amazing Down syndrome family surrounded us, sat and shared stories and provided indescribable support. There are no words to describe the love within this amazing Down syndrome community.
Again, there was talk of canceling Buddy Walk, but in the spirit of Nate and his never-give-up attitude, we knew it must go on. That year was magical. We had our biggest crowd yet with over 1,000 attendees.
At this point, our little family group had a decision to make – to continue to host our annual walk as an awareness event or formalize to move forward and define a mission – but what would that be?
In the meantime, that little GiGi’s Playhouse we had been following was now expanding. Little did we know at that point that GiGi’s Playhouse does not choose where the next location will open, it is the people in the communities who define a need and reach out to GiGi’s Playhouse who then shepherds you through the process to open.
Fast forward to August 2010 when I had the first meeting with Nancy Gianni, the founder of GiGi’s Playhouse. Following that initial meeting our group gathered to review the information and what it would take for us to pull together to bring GiGi’s Playhouse to the Quad Cities. Within this small group of families happened to be dads with business savvy, accounting expertise and media connections; moms with IT savvy, administrative and organizational skills, an aunt with graphic design experience and numerous doers willing to roll up their sleeves to get things done! We then held an informational meeting and invited families we had connected with through Buddy. We had a resounding response of not if, but how soon can we make this happen. Along the way we welcomed a family with a new baby who jumped right in and met others with littles who were ready to take on leadership positions.
Over the next several months, these parents turned friends met, planned and recruited committee members and volunteers to help make this dream a reality. An uncle built our stage, cut windows in doors and could tape plastic to the floor to make it look like glass (it was actually too perfect to splatter paint on). A dad and grandpa who set up a workshop in our parking lot to work in the dark to install a half wall to keep our participants safe and away from the front door and busy parking lot. Another dad built our benches and their neighbor made all of the bench cushions and stage curtains. Other families, friends and community members cleaned and painted, organized and decorated into the wee hours of the late night/early morning of our grand opening. The blood, sweat and tears of the countless volunteer hours were all born of love and belief and our little “box” in a strip mall was coming to life….now we just needed our people to fill it!
The morning of Saturday, October 1, 2011 began with the hosting of our 7th annual walk and that afternoon we packed the Playhouse with celebrated the Grand Opening of Playhouse #8 – GiGi’s Playhouse Quad Cities. And oh was that standing room only grand opening, grand! And with our continued never-give-up attitude, the first GiGi’s Playhouse Program – Playhouse Pals – was held the very next day and led by an amazing founding family, the Taghons! Over the last 10 years, GiGi’s Playhouse Quad Cities has not only impacted our Quad Cities community, but they have impacted the soon to be 55 Playhouse strong network across the US and Mexico. One of GiGi’s Playhouse’s highest attended signature programs – LMNOP, Language Music ‘N Our Peeps – was created by a Quad Cities mom who also happens to be a speech pathologist. That signature program – started right here – now hosts over 6,000 participants annually and helps our youngest participants ages 0-3 develop early communication skills! And that is just one of over 30 programs in the GiGi’s Playhouse curriculum.
So why GiGi’s Playhouse? What is it all about? Why was this the direction we chose to go? GiGi’s Playhouse is about belief, achievement, community, mentorship and the mission to change the way the world sees Down syndrome and send a global message of acceptance for all. GiGi’s Playhouse makes a lifetime commitment to our families. From the parents receiving a prenatal diagnosis all the way through adulthood, our families are never alone. It is a place where scared parents can come for mentorship and support. Where they then become mentors themselves. It is a place where our first adult participants in our Fantastic Friends program entered as individuals who didn’t know one another and kept to themselves, but through the guidance of amazing program leaders became the best of friends who love and look out for one another! Our Fantastic Friends look forward to their social and therapeutic gatherings on Friday nights and if someone isn’t there on any given week, they are all asking where they are. As a bonus to that, the parents of these adults – many who didn’t previously know one another – forged beautiful, life-long relationships. It is a place where a 3 year old can come into a 1:1 literacy session and you hear their volunteer tutor through the walls saying, “You’re reading! You’re reading!” It is a place for educational, therapeutic and career trainings programs tailored to the learning and developmental styles of individuals with Down syndrome. It is a place for volunteers to find their passion and make an impact on individuals with Down syndrome and where our amazing friends with Down syndrome can make an impact on our volunteers. It is a place where we can educate our community on what Down syndrome really is and share the amazing abilities of these resilient individuals who make our world a better place. A place where we see our communities respond to this awareness by opening doors to opportunity.
And the best part is that this is all free to our families and cost is never a barrier to their achievement. And that is all made possible by YOU. Thank you to our founding members for this priceless gift to our Quad Cities community. Your belief, love and inspiration has made an amazing impact. And although Nate was not here to take part in a GiGi’s Playhouse program, this is everything I could have dreamed for as a new mom and I see Nate’s smile and spirit in the smiles of all of your children and share in the joy of each and every achievement.
Again, a sincere thank you to each and every one of you for your continued support. I am honored and humbled to have been a part of this journey and this 10-year celebration.