What is GiGi’s Playhouse?
By Trevor and Carey McLaughlin
GiGi’s Playhouse is a Down Syndrome Achievement Center started by Nancy Gianni after her daughter, GiGi, was born. “The very first Playhouse was created to be an inspirational and dedicated place for families to celebrate their child and benefit from free, purposeful programs that unleash joy, confidence and continuous improvement” as it states on the GiGi’s Playhouse website. GiGi’s Purpose is “to change the way the world views Down Syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all.” GiGi’s vision is “to see a world where individuals with Down Syndrome are accepted and embraced in their families, schools and communities.”
GiGi’s has now grown to more than 52 Playhouses with many more in the works. GiGi’s offers educational programs such as Speech, Literacy, and Math which are tailored to the specific needs of a learner with Down Syndrome. In addition, GiGi’s also offers many social groups, exercise and dance classes for people from birth through adulthood with Down Syndrome. The programs and people at the playhouses encourage children and adults to achieve their “Best of All”. This is a daily challenge to do a little better than you did the day before, emphasizing that everyone’s “Best of All” is a little different. It might be standing just one second longer, or reading just one more word, or learning just one more number. GiGi’s thrives on “Generation G”, their basic tenet which says: be accepting, be generous, and be kind.
We are very fortunate to have GiGi’s Playhouse in Rochester. Our Rochester location is located in The Village Gate Plaza on Goodman Street and was opened in 2017 when a dedicated group of Rochester parents of children with Down Syndrome worked hard to raise the money to open the Rochester location. These parents, now the board of directors at GiGi’s, continue to work tirelessly to add more programs and expand our offerings on a regular basis.
This information is important and you can easily glean it from the GiGi’s Playhouse website. But what truly is GiGi’s, aside from the brick-and-mortar locations and classes? It’s the feeling when you walk through the door for the first time and just know that you are home. It is the feeling of unconditional love and acceptance for people with Down Syndrome and other disabilities. It is friendship, comradery, kindness, and a feeling of promise and purpose for so many.
In the book The Little Prince, the prince explains to the castaway/narrator that real seeing is not even a physical activity but a matter of the heart:
And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
It is what is felt with the heart when you walk through the doors of GiGi’s Playhouse for the first or hundredth time that is the true essence of GiGi’s and this cannot be described in a blog or on a website.
For families, GiGi’s Playhouse is a place to come for resources and networking, but for many, GiGi’s is also a port in a storm. Many families and new parents of a child with Down Syndrome feel just like the narrator in the book The Little Prince, who finds himself crash-landed in the middle of a desert, his plane’s motor broken, with nowhere to go. He says:
“The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation. I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean.”
But, in the book, a boy who claims to be a prince from a faraway planet appears seemingly out of nowhere the next morning and he teaches the narrator so much. GiGi’s Playhouse is to families beginning to navigate the world of Down Syndrome what the prince is to the narrator of the book: a port in a storm.
How does a program participant describe GiGi’s Playhouse in her own words? My daughter Claire, age 16, said “GiGi’s makes my heart happy and makes my heart stay together and not break. I love going to Teentastic and Epic Ambassador’s Club and seeing my friends there.”
GiGi’s Playhouse began as a mother’s dream for her daughter and it has evolved into a global movement. It is a port in a storm for some, a mender of hearts for others, a place to learn, to have fun, to feel at home, to celebrate “Best of All” and a place to practice ‘Generation G’ by being accepting, generous and kind. What can GiGi’s Playhouse be for you?