This is part 2 in our 5 part series of traveling down memory lane with the panel of speakers from the recent gala where we celebrated 10 years here in the Quad Cities.
I am honored to be here tonight to talk about the road we took to establish a Playhouse in the Quad Cities and the early years of running our Playhouse.
But let me start with why my wife Juanita and I became a part of GiGi’s Playhouse in the first place. The main reason we got involved was Caitlin, our youngest daughter. She was born with Down syndrome in 1995. We reviewed the overall GiGi’s Playhouse mission and it really resonated with us. GiGi’s Playhouse is committed through their national awareness campaigns and educational programming, to be a catalyst for positive change by giving a voice to children with Down syndrome, their siblings, their families and their communities.
For me, there was also a second reason. You see one of my older sisters, Cindy, was born with intellectual disabilities. Growing up, I was familiar with the stares Cindy received from other people when my family went out in public…to stores, restaurants, and during our summer camping trips throughout the United States. Stares that said to me: “What is she doing here?” And, I was also familiar with another more extreme behavior special needs children have to endure – bullying. Studies show 3 out 4 children with special needs will be bullied at some point in their lives. I saw this first-hand. One incident stands out from my childhood. I was 6 or 7 years old when my Mom took me aside and told me I needed to “do something” about one of the neighborhood kids who was bullying my sister Cindy. In other words, for the first and only time in my life, my Mom was giving me permission to get into a fight. Shortly afterward, this kid started picking on my sister. I stepped in. It wasn’t much of a fight. I shoved him hard to the ground. And, that was the end of the fight…and the bullying. Getting involved with GiGi’s Playhouse, gave me the opportunity I needed to attack head-on this lack of public acceptance of people who are different.
My wife and I are very proud of our role in helping to establish a GiGi’s Playhouse in the Quad Cities. Quite frankly, I consider getting our Playhouse up and running to be the most significant professional achievement of my life. But I must emphasize there were many others involved as well. It was truly a team effort to start the Quad Cities Playhouse. Let me describe the team.
First, the landlords, KJJ Development, LLC. They leased to us a 2,000 square foot empty storefront, which was part of their John Deere Plaza building off of John Deere Road in Moline. As President, on July 15th 2011, I boldly signed a (3) year lease with them. I say boldly because with roughly $10,000 in the bank, and anticipating our monthly rent to be around $2,400, we would effectively run out of money in 5 months unless we had fundraisers to bring in additional funds. And, here I was signing a (3) year lease on behalf of our GiGi’s Playhouse! But, KJJ Development did something amazing. In the lease, they waived the rent for the first (6) months! And then, for the rest of the (3) year lease, they gave us a substantial discount so that our rent was just under $1,920 per month. Who does that? Cash flow in a small business operation is critical. KJJ Development evidently knew this and these rent reprieves and discounts helped us tremendously to stay afloat.
The second key portion of the team consisted of painters, carpenters, cabinet makers, play equipment donors, electricians, to set up the sound system and cleaners. We needed to turn an empty store into a warm, inviting place where everyone was welcome and no judgments were made. Plus, the corporate offices had facility requirements that had to be met for us to be an official GiGi’s Playhouse. For instance, we had to have a raised stage, so one had to be built. We had to have music playing at all times when we were open so a sound system needed to be installed and set up. And so on. This group of selfless individuals made it happen from May, a month or two before we signed the lease in July, to October 1st when we had our Grand Opening.
The third key group within the team was the first Board of Managers. These Board members toiled countless hours, tackling a myriad of tasks. For instance, we had to recruit volunteers. In some cases, the Board members led social programs, developing the program activities themselves. We had to figure out fundraising and budgets. I remember in those early years, we held two major fundraising events — the Gala in late February and the GiGi’s Playhouse walk on the first Saturday in October. However, invariably when July and August rolled around, we would be running extremely low on funds. We typically had less than $2,000 in the bank. At those moments, I thought I might have to write a personal check to cover some expenses. Or, “pass the hat” at a monthly Board meeting to collect donations. (In that vein, let me add a little-known fact. At our first Gala held at the Outing Club in February 2012, the board did “pass the hat” to collect the money to buy an expensive piece of jewelry as one of the big-ticket items to auction off.) Fortunately, by September each year, enough money would start flowing in from registration fees for the Walk to get us to a healthy cash position again.
The Fourth key group was the volunteers. When we first started the GiGi’s Playhouse QC, we did NOT have a single employee. Even now, we only have (2). There were tutors working weekly with kids and adults with Down syndrome to improve their Literacy and Math skills. We started in January 2012 by offering an 8-week Literacy program specifically designed by GiGi’s Playhouse for how individuals with Down syndrome learn. And, we were one of the first Playhouses to offer the newly developed 8-week Math program in the Spring of 2013.
Other volunteers helped us run existing GiGi’s Playhouse social programs like Friday Friends (now called Fantastic Friends) for teens and adults, 2 & under group and the Hop, Skip and Jumper group for 3- to 5-year-olds, etc. Additional volunteers came to us with programs they wanted to run. One of the first such programs was a group of St. Ambrose Occupational Therapy students who ran a fine motor program in the summer of 2012. We had kids learning to tie their shoes for the first time! The list goes on and on. The point is we could not run the wide range of Playhouse program offerings without volunteers.
At this point, I must highlight one individual, Michelle Hughes, THE driver in getting a GiGi’s Playhouse in the Quad Cities. Michelle made the initial contact with Nancy Gianni, founder of GiGi’s Playhouse, and served as our main liaison with the corporate offices. (GiGi is Nancy’s daughter.) Michelle was part of the Up Side of Down Syndrome Family Group along with the Mudds, Taghons, Casey McManus, Juanita, and I. This group provided our startup capital of $10,000, another requirement for us to become an official GiGi’s Playhouse.
Let me provide one story that tells you how committed Michelle was in bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to the Quad Cities. Michelle willingly gave up a lucrative job, to take on the full-time role without pay as our first site coordinator. It was at least (6) months before we had the funds to pay her, and even then, her salary was not up to what she was making at her previous job. Who does that? By the way, Michelle now works as a member of the GiGi’s Playhouse headquarters team.
Finally, I need to mention all of you, the donors. You have been with us every step of the way these last (10) years. In some cases, you have held your own events to raise funds for our GiGi’s Playhouse. Local school events, Knights of Columbus yearly tootsie roll drive, a certain percentage of restaurant receipts on a given day, and numerous other events have all contributed significant funds to the Playhouse. It has been amazing to see how you have embraced us with your generous financial support. It is greatly appreciated and we work diligently to be good stewards with your donations. Without it, we could not pay the rent. We could not pay for the supplies to run all of our programs! And most importantly, we could not offer ALL of our programming free of charge to our families.
In closing, I want to read an excerpt from my remarks at the November 2012 National GiGi’s Playhouse board retreat in Chicago. Like Martin Luther King’s August 28, 1963 speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, I have a dream. Only my dream is about individuals with Down syndrome.
“I have a dream, that one day individuals with Down syndrome will not be judged by the look of their face, but by the beauty of their souls. They will not be shunned by their disabilities but embraced for their abilities. They will not have teachers struggling in the dark, but educators using learning methods tailored to their students with Down syndrome.
I have been to the mountain top, and I have seen the Promised Land where individuals with Down syndrome are supported and encouraged to blossom to their full potential to live productive and happy lives. They are cherished like all kids should be, as gifts from God.
With GiGi’s Playhouse and all of us, they have a voice, our collective voice. And, with God’s assistance, we will light the way to this Promised Land.”
You are helping to make the voices of people with Down syndrome heard and to make this dream a reality in the Quad Cities region!
Hopefully, in the future, a brother (or sister) will not have to fight a kid to stop bullying his special needs sibling.
Thank you for allowing me to share my story about establishing GiGi’s Playhouse in the Quad Cities and our early days of operation.