A Trip around the Second Annual GiGi’s Fall Fest in Raleigh
By Cornelia Smith, Ph.D.
Some people awoke on Sunday Oct 29, 2017 with feelings of excitement and anticipation because of the second annual GiGi’s Fall Fest in Raleigh. As the start time for the event approached (1:00 pm), I’m certain the organizers and volunteers wondered if the impending rainy weather would affect the event and/or turnout. Those concerns were soon relieved as the event unfolded. Indeed, there were bouts of sprinkles and even a brief down pour however, a break from the showers revealed a sun-filled sky at 2:30 pm. Approximately 50 volunteers and vendors and 175 attendees attended, resulting in a nice sized crowd. The Fall Fest took place in an open field near the GiGi’s Playhouse Center and included snacks, entertainment, and activities. Fun loomed around every corner of the field and the rain showers didn’t stop a thing!
Take a Tour of the Day
Let’s partake in a trip around the festivities. As I parked and walked towards the field, the first activity that I noticed was GiGi’s Crafts Table. The crafts included decorations or creations of masks, cotton ball ghosts, bracelets, necklaces, pumpkins, and weaved apple place mats. I saw children engaged in various crafts around the table. I then walked to a snack station which featured Waffle House waffles topped with chocolate chips. A popcorn station was adjacent to the savory waffles. A nearby booth sponsored by New York Life Company featured free Child ID Cards. This same booth was shared with Flower Child Face Painting. I witnessed a happy little girl sitting patiently as her face was being painted. Of course, Face painting is a must-have at any festival! My next stop was one of excitement as it was a tent featuring Cristina and Megan from the popular Docu-Series Born This Way which airs on the A.E. Network. Shirts were available for purchase from Megan’s Megology fashion line. I took the opportunity to have my picture taken with these beautiful ladies and collected autographed cards from each of them. Now how cool is that! A few steps away, I stopped at a table and met a volunteer with preorder forms for the photography collection book, “Beautiful Souls” sponsored by GiGi’s Playhouse and other Down syndrome-focused organizations. As I continued my way around, I saw a cornhole game with prizes sponsored by CEI. Other activities around the field which were set up by the GiGi’s Playhouse volunteers included an egg race, three legged race, costume photo booth, temporary tattoo booth, and a Special Olympics Obstacle Course. A Fire Truck from a nearby Fire station and a Dusty Donuts food truck rounded out the perimeter. Penn Gorman of the Swift Creek Volunteer Fire department informed me that his team enjoys educating the community on fire prevention and safety, sharing the fire truck, and showing the equipment. Penn told me that his team also participated last year.
One of the main attractions of the Fall Fest was a tent near the center of the field equipped with a bubble making machine, live DJ, music, and chairs. Soon enough, the DJ announced that everyone make their way to this tent for the Fashion Show! An audience gathered in chairs under the tent or stood on the perimeter of the tent to watch the Fashion show. The Fashion Show featured GiGi’s Playhouse participants including toddlers and elementary aged children, teenagers, and adults dressed in a costume or their favorite attire. The Fashion Show host announced the names, ages, and hobbies of the participants as each walked the runway. The crowd applauded and filled the air with praises as these individuals paraded down the aisle. Some modeled their attire with flair while others were more reserved. The host held out her microphone for some of the participants and asked them to tell the audience the name of their favorite GiGi’s program.
21 Days of Kindness Presentation
Immediately following the Fashion Show, Jeanhee Hoffman (President) made a special presentation. Jeanhee presented a $10,000 check to the Merritt Family to help with the startup of a new GiGi’s Playhouse in Charlotte NC. Marlon Merritt assisted with the startup of GiGi’s Playhouse in Raleigh last year before moving to Charlotte. Charlotte is lucky to have the support of GiGi’s Playhouse and the Merritt family.
After the presentation, I went inside of the center and saw Happy Dan The Magic Man performing a magic show for children and adults. The children were clearly entertained by the show. While inside, I snacked on some popcorn and interviewed three individuals. I asked Laney, a 13 year old what she liked best about the Fall Festival. I learned that she enjoyed the Fashion show and loves the Teentastic program after a little prodding from a nearby volunteer. Laney was a participant in the Fashion Show and was fun to watch as she twirled down the aisle showing off her dress and Kendra Scott (Raleigh North Hills location) necklace. I also interviewed Denise (a volunteer treasurer and GiGi’s Playhouse board member). Denise shared with me that her 16 year old son has Down syndrome and did not participate in the Fashion Show. Denise was especially proud of the Fashion show and viewed it as a celebration of those individuals with Down syndrome. As she spoke to me more about GiGi’s Playhouse, she stated “It amazes me that the organization pushes the kids to reach their potential and learn and grow”. I spoke with Connie, an attendee from Cary who learned of the GiGi’s Fall Fest from Facebook events. Connie shared with me that her five year old son is a special needs child and she thought this would be something fun for him to attend. As it turns out, her son had a blast! Speaking about the organization, Connie expressed the following: “Everyone has compassion and cares about each other”.
As I made my way back outside to the field, I heard DJ Shaun (an adult with Ds), on the 1’s and 2’s. Some of the adults and teens were dancing under the tent to the sounds of DJ Shaun, Meghan Trainor, and Bruno Mars. The sun was shining and the rain was gone. I made sure to visit the Dusty Donuts food truck before I left and was not disappointed. I was able to speak briefly with Jeanhee about the event. Jeanhee expressed that the turnout was great and was likely due to the fact that GiGi’s has become a part of the community and people learning more about the organization. The Fall Fest was a “celebration for families and volunteers to come together and socialize” in Jeanhee’s words and the event was covered by the local cable news station Spectrum 14.
The term celebration was used more than once in my brief interviews with some of the attendees. The Fall Fest brought the community together and enabled people of various backgrounds to shine, be free, and be celebrated. This year’s GiGi’s Fall Fest was amazing and I can’t wait for next year’s celebration!