Run Your Own Marathon

GiGi’s Playhouse Literacy Program

By Carey and Trevor McLaughlin

My oldest daughter just completed a half marathon on her birthday in April.  Her road to running a half marathon was, in and of itself, a marathon.  She was never interested in sports as a young child, which mattered not at all to us, but it is the reason why it took us by surprise when she decided to run on the XC team in 8th grade.  The middle school coach, an older English woman, at one point shouted to our daughter and her friends “this isn’t an old ladies’ walking club” in her elegant British accent because they were walking rather than running.  Her participation on the team was more for the camaraderie and friendship rather than for a love of running, which is why we were again surprised when she continued to run on her own and train for a half marathon in college.  There was no formal race, due to Covid, but my ‘ladies’ walking club’ daughter trained for and completed the half marathon on her birthday in April and each mile was faster than her best time in high school.  Her journey to this goal was not a straight line, but more like a staircase with lots of plateaus.  She does not have Down syndrome or special needs, but running is not something that comes easily to her and she has to work very hard at it.  Like many things that are worth doing, it has taken time and focus but has been so rewarding for her.

Learning to read is much like running a marathon, rather than a sprint, for many children.  This is especially true for children with Down syndrome and special needs. It is not a straight line to being successful readers for our children, but it isn’t necessarily a straight line to a lot of things in life.  The Gigi’s Playhouse Literacy Program runs the ‘literacy marathon’ hand-in-hand with your child and, when ready, side-by-side with your child with a well-researched, individualized, meaningful program. This journey is well worth it because, in the words of Barack Obama, “Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy.” The ‘knowledge economy’ for people with Down syndrome is both functional (being able to read things in society that help a person to function at their best) and for enjoyment (being able to enjoy books).  These are both very important for a high quality of life.

The GiGi’s Literacy Program uses materials that are meaningful and relevant to each child in addition to using a multi-sensory approach to teaching.  We use a program called Raising Robust Readers which is a phonics-based reading program specially designed for children with Down syndrome and other special needs and Reading A-Z, a database of books for every interest and reading level.  Parents learn along with the program in order to help students at home, because reading is not learned in isolation in a one-hour session per week and because children always learn better when parents are involved and invested in their child’s education.

The GiGi’s Playhouse Rochester location is fortunate to be led by Carrielyn Bertino.  A seasoned educator, Carrielyn got the literacy program at our local playhouse off the ground and worked tirelessly to do so.  The literacy program was already in existence but Carrielyn made sure that the Rochester playhouse went above and beyond to make the program exceptional.  She is truly a treasure.

Many times, people are shocked that my daughter Claire, who is 17 and has Down syndrome, can read.  People don’t intend to be insensitive; I think that they just don’t know much about Down syndrome and what people with Down syndrome are capable of.  Claire’s interest and ability in reading would not be where it is today had she not participated in the GiGi’s Literacy Program.  Both she and her tutors have worked hard to get her where she is today, and it was worth every minute of time when I see her sit down to read on her own or read something in a store or text her siblings.  Every person deserves the opportunity to learn to read in a program that meets their specific learning style, and too often the programs in our schools are not enough.

At GiGi’s, our goal is to celebrate every learner’s best of all.  This is a daily challenge to do a little better than you did the day before and it’s always celebrated. With our literacy program, this might mean that one participant’s best of all is recognizing his own name in print, and another participant’s might be finishing a chapter book.  No matter at what level, each participant’s best of all is celebrated and it helps open up that learner’s world.

In the words of Kofi Annan: “literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society…. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right….”  We are so fortunate to have an amazing literacy program within our reach at GiGi’s to work with our children to help them realize their full potential and to open up more of the world to our children.  Come join us, we will be cheering you on in your marathon.


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