The walls have been painted, the toys are in place, and the memories are about to be made at the 24th location of Gigi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center, which is set to open Aug. 1 in Ardsley, N.Y.
Gigi’s Playhouse, which has locations across the United States and Mexico, offers about 30 educational and therapeutic programs at no charge to families. Its mission is to increase positive awareness of Down Syndrome.
Priscilla Graham of Wilton, mother of 8-year-old Priscilla who has Down Syndrome, said she is really looking forward to becoming a part of Gigi’s Westchester family.
“I love advocating for the Down Syndrome community. I particularly like the sibling program Gigi has called ‘Super Sibs,’ which gives siblings of kids with Down Syndrome the opportunity to make connections with other kids who also have siblings with Down Syndrome. I never want my other children to feel left out because of the attention given to Priscilla,” said Graham, who works as a neuro-movement practitioner. Aside from her daughter Priscilla, Graham is the mother of Virginia, 6, Charlotte, 3, and is expecting twins in September.
Graham explained Gigi’s offers an excellent math and reading program. “The math program is very tactile and visual. The reading component is a reading for speech program. These are two basic programs I did with Priscilla that were incredibly successful. I want to make sure these kinds of programs continue to be available to other kids with Down Syndrome.”
Gigi’s was founded in 2003 by Nancy Gianni, the mother of Gigi, a girl with Down syndrome who was born in 2002. The first location of Gigi’s was in Hoffman Estates, Ill. In 2014, more 25,000 participants attended Gigi’s Playhouse programs.
Gigi’s Playhouse is funded entirely through donations, fundraisers, and grants. Programs, which are not offered at all locations, include hop, skip & jumpers, art explosion, cooking club, karate kickers, and a teen drama troupe. There is also Gigi’s University, which helps prepare adults to get a job.
“The mission of Gigi’s is to change the way the world views Down Syndrome. It’s creating a positive view of Down Syndrome and showing what everyone who has Down Syndrome can do,” said Erin McPhee, who will be site coordinator of the new Gigi’s. The new facility, which is situated in a busy shopping complex beside a Starbucks, a sushi restaurant, and a veterinary practice, is close to 2,000-square-feet and has two levels. There are toys, a tunnel to crawl through, and a stage for performances on the lower level, with learning labs and tutoring rooms on the upper level.
“Each program is structured to provide therapeutic benefits — whether this is fine motor skills, gross motor skills, math, literacy, listening skills, or table manners. Programs are run by volunteers who must go through volunteer orientation before they are eligible to volunteer. We usually hold orientations once a month.
“Tutors go through volunteer orientation and then a separate tutor orientation to learn the Gigi’s curriculum,” said McPhee, of Mount Vernon, N.Y. McPhee has a bachelor of arts in social work from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Ga.
Gigi’s Playhouse has programs designed for the entire lifespan of people with Down Syndrome. Caryn Croll, 28, who also has Down Syndrome, is at Gigi’s Playhouse in Hillsborough, N.J., several times a week. “I tutor children in the reading program, teaching beginning readers how to sound out words or letters,” she said. To be qualified to become a tutor, Croll took a literacy tutor training program. “I like working with children and teaching them reading.
“I also volunteer at Busy Bodies, which is a play group for children age 2 and under,” added Croll, of Franklin Park, N.J., who works as a cafeteria aide.
Croll is currently is in training to become assistant director at Gigi’s. “I am learning how to run Gigi’s. I help with organizing and data entry. I am going to be face of the playhouse,” she said.
Catherine Graybosch, who is part of the start-up committee for the Ardsley location of Gigi’s, and the mother of Nathan, 5, who has Down Syndrome, said “Having a child with Down Syndrome is not a bad experience. It’s just a different one.
“It’s great to have a place to connect with other parents who know what our situation is and can relate to our experiences living with a child who has Down Syndrome. It’s important to spread awareness so people with Down Syndrome are seen in our community and accepted. My biggest hope is to have a lifelong family here at Gigi’s,” said Graybosch, of Bronxville, N.Y., who works as a library media specialist.
Gigi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center, 720 Saw Mill River Road, Ardsley, N.Y., will have its grand opening from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 1. There will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony followed by tours of the playhouse, music, and refreshments. There will be activities for children including face painting and making balloon animals, as well as merchandise for sale such as shirts, bags, mugs, and hats with the Gigi’s logo. For more information on Gigi’s Playhouse, visit www.gigisplayhouse.org or send an email to [email protected]