When Nancy Gianni gave birth to her daughter GiGi, she thought her family’s life would change forever. She was right – but the changes weren’t what she anticipated. Shortly after Gigi’s birth, doctors suspected Down syndrome, panic welled in Nancy’s heart and people stopped making eye contact with her and her husband.
After her first support group meeting in a sterile hospital room, Nancy kept thinking “why isn’t there a place for us?”
Nancy dedicated her life to creating a such a place — a spot where families could come for resources and networking, led by kids and adults with Down syndrome. Just a few months later, in 2003, the first GiGi’s Playhouse was opened. Today, dozens of centers operate across the United States and Mexico.
Decades before Gigi’s Playhouse first opened its doors, a father in Wyoming faced his own struggles raising a child with Down syndrome. As a school principal, he didn’t want his daughter to be in all special-ed classes or institutionalized, which was common for people with Down syndrome at the time. His daughter Frances became the first student in the state of Wyoming to be mainstreamed and be in the same classes as students without Down syndrome.
“Frances was really revolutionary,” says Anita Mckinley, von Drehle’s Director of Sales for Healthcare and National Accounts. Anita eventually became Frances’ backup guardian and goes on to detail her groundbreaking life — Frances lived to be 74 years old, remarkable at a time when most people with Down syndrome had a life expectancy of just 20 to 25 years. Frances defied expectations and lived alone until her late 60s, when a fall and resulting broken foot sent her to a group home.
When Frances passed away in 2016, Anita’s search for something to fill her time led her to Gigi’s Playhouse in Madison, Wisconsin.
Acceptance is at the heart of Gigi’s Playhouse and Anita’s work with the organization. “Individuals with Down syndrome are no different than anybody else. They want the exact same things in life — they want happiness, and they want to be successful, productive contributors to their communities. They really just want to be accepted for who they are and not be judged,” she explains.
Gigi’s Playhouse and volunteers like Anita further that mission through programming that spans a lifetime. Gigi’s Playhouse has programming for individuals with Down syndrome and their families from discovery all the way through adulthood. “Think about this,” Anita explains, “You’re expecting and you learn that your child has Down syndrome. Gigi’s steps in and helps from that very first moment through giving birth and helping people understand what might be different in their lives parenting a child with Down syndrome. They really help with the acceptance and that struggle for a new or expecting parent, then they have programming that starts from infant and toddler stages to pre-teens and teenagers.” That continues with programming for career development, helping people learn to live as independently as possible, speech and language tutoring, movement and dance, learning to read and more. “The programming is really unending,” Anita highlights, “and the great thing is that it’s all at absolutely no charge to any of the participants.”
Donations of time, money and resources keep Gigi’s Playhouse alive. Most centers operate with a bare-bones staff, with most programming being created and run by volunteers. Funding is always important, and von Drehle has been proud to support this work through in-kind donations of towel and tissue products and other measures. “What’s wonderful about von Drehle,” according to Anita, “is that they support us helping make our communities better in a variety of ways.” Our big sales meeting falls around March 24th each year, which happens to be World Down Syndrome Acceptance Day. Mismatched socks have become a symbol of the day, and Anita dons hers each year during our sales meeting and takes a few moments to talk about Gigi’s Playhouse. “It’s awesome that von Drehle allows us to be active and supportive of our communities,” she explains.
For Anita, volunteering with Gigi’s Playhouse is an opportunity for tremendous joy: “What I love most is the joy that they feel about so many things. It’s not that they don’t get cranky from time to time, we all do, but the genuine joy that they feel and experience and the love that they share in their everyday life is incredible for me.”
Like all of us, Gigi’s Playhouse has faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a normal year, there are many great volunteer activities, but most Playhouses now have limited exposure to people. Most programming has successfully been moved online, and one of the best ways for people to support this work is through donations. Please click here to support Gigi’s Playhouse and help spread the message of acceptance for all.