August 1st marks the 5th Anniversary of GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester opening our doors to the community. It is hard to believe that it was only five years ago when we began to provide FREE and purposeful programs to families in Westchester and the surrounding areas. While discussing our anniversary, we remarked on some of the marvelous achievements and Best of All moments we have had the pleasure of witnessing since August 1, 2015.
The idea of bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to Westchester was initiated by Ben and Ruth Dieleman-Levine. Ruth began to recruit other parents they had met to join the Start-Up Committee she was spearheading. Once the Playhouse opened, Ruth continued to lead by becoming the Founding Board President. Ruth recalls the beginning in the following message:
GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester’s idea came to life after Ben and I saw Nancy Gianni at GiGi’s Playhouse INC. on TV right after our son Oliver was hospitalized for 14 days with the flu and RSV virus which made his airways close-up. Oliver had to be put on a ventilator and in an induced coma. It was a very tough time for us as a family and as parents. While Oliver was intubated, we really missed his dancing with his head to anything that had some music or rhythm to it. While he laid there so lifeless, I wanted a place where Oliver could just be Oliver and where he could dance with his head and have other kids who were just like him living with Down syndrome. As parents, both Ben and I wanted a place where Oliver would have other friends with Down syndrome. For our three younger children, we wanted a place where our children can see other siblings who have a person with Down syndrome in their family. So over six years ago, we started with gathering families we had met before who we knew had a child with Down syndrome. We started our journey with all these great families and worked hard to raise enough money to open GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester. We opened GiGi’s Playhouse in August 2015, 5 years ago!
It is still such a great feeling that GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester is here and that we have one location to celebrate Down syndrome in all shapes and forms in our area. Here is to many more years to come! Congratulations to GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester with your 5th birthday!
– Love Ruth, Ben, Oliver, Charlotte, James, and Abigail Dieleman-Levine
Ruth recruited a strong group of parents and advocates to comprise the Start-Up Team including Corinne Ellovich, Melanie Flores, Priscilla Graham, Catherine Graybosch, Sue Hartwell, Stephanie Hinkaty, Jennifer Netter, and Maureen Winner. Once this dynamic group formed, they began to work through GiGi’s national’s 8 step process before our Playhouse became a reality. Stephanie Hinkaty remembers, “opening the Playhouse was much harder than I thought it would be and has been infinitely more gratifying to see in action than I ever imagined it would be. I am so grateful to ALL of our families for building such a special gathering place.”
Catherine Graybosch evoked similar sentiments on what GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester has meant to her and her family over the years:
GiGi’s means community to me. When I began on the start-up committee, it was a group of women who I could connect with. Then as we worked to open our Playhouse, that community expanded, and my son had kids that looked like him to play with and adults with Ds to look up to. GiGi’s is a space where we can bring Nathan and not feel like we have to worry about how he’s going to act or what he will/won’t do. It is a place for him to be himself and be wholly accepted. GiGi’s Westchester is our extended family & even if we don’t get to the physical space as often as we would like, we know we still have that connection.
We are grateful to the Start-Up Team for creating a remarkable space and for laying the foundation that we have continued to build upon. It is that foundation that has allowed us to welcome 291 families to our community, and we are continuing to grow!
Stephen & Laura Dolan found GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester shortly before we opened and quickly lent a helping hand. Stephen painted walls, built shelves, and made sure our air conditioning was in perfect working order for our hot opening day in August. Laura became a fixture at the Playhouse bringing their son, Edward, every chance she could, she welcomes new families and joined the Board of Directors as our Treasurer.
GiGi’s Westchester means so much to us! When we first found it, five years ago, Edward was very young & it was a haven for all of us. It gave us the ability to see/witness what possibilities were ahead of us for our son, which filled us with so much comfort and hope!
And now, it continues to fill us with hope for the future and has become a place to go where we can ‘let our hair down’ and have fun without any judgment! A place for Edward to learn by using research–proven best strategies for our children and adults with Down syndrome. A place for us as Mom and Dad to gain perspective from all the other parents and gracious volunteers. The Playhouse really is a second home & we couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.
When we first opened, we were offering our six core programs & over the past five years, we have doubled that number and are now offering twelve group programs with plans to add new ones this year. In addition to these group programs, we have been able to offer 1-on-1 tutoring in Literacy and Math; these two programs are consistently filled to the maximum with participants aged 3 to 46 years old. We have had the pleasure of tutoring 112 participants, many for more than one session, and have gotten to see them make significant measurable progress in reading and mathematics.
“We’re so happy to celebrate GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester’s 5th anniversary! It’s been 5 years of many great programs such as Teen Tastic, GiGi’s Kitchen, and GiGiFit that encourage the teens and give them life skills, all while making fantastic friends. GiGi’s offered a much-needed inclusive place for our teenager.” – Marybeth, mom to Samantha and Board Member
This year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were concerned about having to temporarily close our doors and lose that connection with our participants and their families. Luckily, we quickly worked with GiGi’s National Office & the rest of the network to pivot our focus and offer our FREE purposeful programming via a virtual platform. It has been wonderful to see everyone’s smiling faces on our computer screens.
Since 2015, we have accumulated over 14,000 participation hours and over 13,500 volunteer hours. GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester is 99% run by volunteers, and it is these devoted volunteers that have allowed us to reach those incredible total hours. The Playhouse has been blessed to have many volunteers from the surrounding community come to donate their time and energy by acting as program leaders, tutors, education committee members, Board members, and everything in between. Jennifer Cook, a volunteer since the beginning and current Board Co-President, remarked:
It has been wonderful to see the progress and growth from when we first opened. Before we opened, when we were painting and building the space, we talked about what things would look like and how spaces would be used, but I don’t think that any of us truly imagined how everything would come together and become a second home to this community.
One of my favorite things to have witnessed here has been watching a parent from one school district, share information and lessons they have learned with a parent from another school district. These parents support each other by letting them know what their child is entitled to and empowering them on how to be an advocate for their child in a system that can seem scary and tricky to navigate. You can see the weight lift off their shoulders because they know they are not alone and that someone has been through the same situation.
We have received many messages of support, celebration, and encouragement for our 5th anniversary from current and past Board Members. It has been a wonderful acknowledgment of how far we have come in these short five years but also a reminder of how many families have been positively affected by us opening our doors.
“GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester is about celebrating and connecting. We celebrate our loved ones who rock that extra chromosome and connect with amazing families and volunteers who help to show the world just how wonderful life is knowing and loving an individual who happens to have Down syndrome. I am so grateful to all of the dedicated people who keep GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester thriving.” – Maureen Winner
“We are so grateful for the GiGi’s Westchester community. Happy Anniversary!” Gwyneth Meeks, current Co-Board President
During August, we will be celebrating 5 years of GiGi’s Playhouse Westchester on Facebook and our other social media platforms; you are welcome to send photos of your favorite memories to firstname.lastname@example.org to be included in our slideshows!