A place to belong: it’s a human need we feel from birth, a need that doesn’t disappear if we happen to be born with an additional chromosome. Still, children with Down Syndrome often face an incredible lack of acceptance in their communities. GiGi’s Playhouse: Down Syndrome Achievement Centers is working hard to change all of that.
Gigi’s Playhouse has several locations across the country, and one is now serving the Greater Rochester area at Village Gate. “Gigi’s Playhouse is a national organization with a branch in Mexico,” said Amy Shulman, GiGi's Playhouse Coordinator of Volunteers. “Our president and vice president, Jennifer Bustamante and Kim Guerrieri, both have children with Down Syndrome (Ds). They were on a local board for children with Ds when they heard about GiGi’s Playhouse. They thought it was something we could really benefit from here.” So, in April of 2017, GiGi’s Playhouse opened its doors at Village Gate.
“We are an extension of their education,” said Shulman, referring to the children with Ds who utilize GiGi’s. “We tutor children with D.S. in literacy and math. We have a science club, a GiGiFit program through which we help children living with Ds improve their muscle tone. We have cooking club once a month…anything we can do to be an extension of their learning, we do.” GiGi’s certainly is filling a need, exploding to about 1,000 participants in the Rochester area, and area residents are showing the love right back.
“I just can’t emphasize enough that we would be unable to do this without Rochester. It is an incredibly giving community,” said Shulman. “GiGi’s is 100% funded by the community, and what we offer is 100% free to the community. We are 99% run by volunteers who serve with this outpouring of love.” Shulman went on to describe the volunteers as the heart and soul of GiGi’s Playhouse, wonderful people who come in every day and give their all. “They do this out of the goodness of their heart and their love for the children,” she explained.
Still, Shulman sees more opportunity to serve, stating that there are approximately 2,000 people living with Ds in the Rochester area and that GiGi’s is always reaching out to those whom they have not yet supported, reaching beyond the children to embrace the entire family. “We also try to be a help to the parents and be a support system for them,” explains Shulman. “We do what we can to be a support system to both our participants and our families. Our center is a safe haven, and it is like home to most of them, a safe home environment. When participants come in, they feel welcome and are greeted with a hug.” The parents, says Shulman, have been so grateful to have this support system and a place of acceptance. “That is really what we want,” Shulman added. “To watch them grow and learn and succeed is so rewarding for us, and it is incredibly gratifying for the parents especially when children have these challenges.” The outstanding support GiGi’s provides starts young, even before birth.
“One of our goals is to reach couples prenatal if there is a diagnosis, which sometimes there isn’t,” said Shulman. “We are there all the way from prenatal to adulthood. We believe we are the first Down Syndrome advocacy group working to be right there offering a positive hand when a diagnosis of Down Syndrome is given.” Shulman then described an all-too-familiar scene. “Across the world, when a baby is born with Down Syndrome, doctors will all huddle around the baby in a corner, whispering. When a doctor at last delivers the news, it will be with expressions like, ‘I am so sorry.’” This experience is something GiGi’s is working to change. “Why should any mother have to hear that?” Shulman asked. “There is nothing to be sorry about! This is a wonderful, beautiful, healthy baby and a blessing.”
In fact, it is this current perception of Down Syndrome which leads to expressions of sympathy that GiGi’s is seeking to change, what Shulman refers to as “changing the face of Down Syndrome.” To this end, GiGi’s does its best to inform through social media and by getting its Ambassadors Club members out there. GiGi’s is spreading the message that children with Ds are incredibly capable and loving. GiGi’s Ambassadors Club is made up of some of its participants, teenagers through adults. “We get them out there to do community service, like the Brown Bag Lunches which they made and handed out at the Open Door Mission,” explained Shulman. “They have also participated in bell ringing for the Salvation Army, and we have them involved in public speaking as much as possible, especially at our events like our Gala. We give them a voice so that they can speak for themselves.”
Looking forward, Shulman sees an even bigger and brighter future for GiGi’s. We have already outgrown our center,” she enthused. “We would like to add on.” Shulman explains that the first GiGi’s in Chicago, established by Nancy Giani, now includes several additional pieces. Hugs and Mugs, a coffee shop, is completely operated by the participants. GiGi University is basically a work skills college for work skills where young people can learn real life skills to get out into the workforce and excel in real world jobs. “We see these things and more as a part of our potential future,” said Shulman. For now, GiGi’s is planning an extraordinary Gala on March 16th at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center near the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. Shulman hopes that this Gala will not only raise support but will increase awareness, as well. “We want people to know we are here for them,” she said. “We are a resource for all families facing that diagnosis.”
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