by M. Yesenia Summers
(Plain Press, August 2017) I walked into Gigi’s Playhouse and was greeted by friendly faces. Gigi’s Playhouse is nestled in a strip of stores on Detroit Road in Lakewood, Ohio. I was given a tour by the site coordinator, Elizabeth Maxwell, and we discussed the success of the achievement center.
Q: “Can you tell me how Gigi’s Playhouse began?”
A: “Nancy Gianni, started the first Gigi’s Playhouse in Illinois after her daughter, Gigi was born. She was so passionate about a place where her daughter could not only learn but also be empowered. A place to let parents connect and get resources. A place where individuals with Down Syndrome can and should be celebrated. A place to learn and grow in ways they learn best.
“We have therapeutic programs, educational programs and many different components that offers purposeful programming. While we are Gigi’s Playhouse, we are an achievement center. Kids come here and play, we are very purposeful about that. They don’t realize they’re learning and growing while they’re having fun. We have 32 locations nationwide and one in Mexico”.
Q: What are the different areas of the achievement center?”
A: “We have an education station where it looks like fun and they’re drawn to it. For example, a dad who brings his triplets in, one of them has Downs. Last year she was having problems with number recognition, like 12 and 21. We made it fun and enjoyable for her, it wasn’t work. Anytime we can get them to look at letters and numbers, they’re retaining that information.
“We have a stage here for obvious reasons. We do karaoke, dance nights and not only for our teens and adults. We’ll bring it out for our younger groups too. That stage has built so much confidence over the past year. We had a teen who decided to go to homecoming; her first dance because of this stage. They feel confident here, to get up in front of their friends and their peers. Then, they go to school and feel “I got this, I can do this!” It’s been neat to see what that little stage has done, the big impact it has had. Nancy wanted music and a couch in every playhouse. She wanted that homey feel, a home away from home. That’s how our families feel about it.
“Next, we have our therapeutic playground. We are all about fine and gross motor skills. Using a piggy bank and being able to put those coins in, they’re playing but it’s very purposeful. We want them to feel safe and comfortable; to explore, learn and grow. We are all about imaginative play here. We have a (play) kitchen and toys. We swap out toys and what comes next is they’re here in the real kitchen. They’re cooking and cleaning and helping us clean up. They’re learning what they can help mom and dad with at home. Our teens and adults are doing their own thing. The nutrition and fitness program they have, they’re cooking their own meals and preparing the food.
“We have a café. At each program, we always incorporate meal and snack time. It’s so important for transition, I think transition is so important for all kids. We work on, this is where we eat and drink. We are sitting together, using good table manners; what does that look like? We are working on social skills, chatting; talking at the table, cleaning up after we’re done. We have families that come in any time and meet for playdates. They’ll meet for lunch and bring a snack, this is their place. It’s their kitchen to use, it’s their café to use. Moms will chat over a cup of coffee while the kids play.
“This is a place they know their kids can play. It’s clean and safe but also where they’re encouraging their best of all. They’re learning and growing in some capacity…We want families to see that there are people in the community who have their back.
“Best of All is a program that is a continuous, measurable, celebrated program that never ends. It’s a daily challenge to do a little better than you did the day before.
“We have a resource library. I’ve had youth pastors and people from the medical field, come in and take out a book. Parents and volunteers want to learn more and educate themselves. We are so thankful they can come over and do that”.
“We have a learning lab. We have literacy tutoring that we offer and will start Math tutoring in September. This is a place where they can have peaceful time with mom and dad, or whoever. We have a different approach, learners with Down Syndrome are multi-sensory learners. They’re very literal when they’re learning, we take that approach in learning in our literacy program. It’s great because Gigi’s Playhouse Inc, our corporate office, does a lot of research. They are always “in the know” on what works best. We have a student who focuses so well during snack time, so he’s tutored in the café. He is so productive, it’s amazing to see his effort. The tutors do what works…”
“This is our get fit gym. Individuals with Down Syndrome need physical fitness. We are all about being active, staying active; learning what that looks like and the importance of that…Individuals with Down Syndrome have low muscle tone, so we want them to work on getting physical, staying active”.
“Over here, it says future home of Gigi U. We have over 2,000 square feet of space that’s not ours yet. We have no doubt there will come a time, we can put in classrooms. Gigi University is a 12 to 14 -week program. They come every day, there’s an application process, just as you would have in any college type atmosphere. They apply and if they get accepted, there’s this program they go through. There’s self-advocacy, productive skills, resume writing and mock interviews, healthy life style choices; they’re learning all these. Then, we collaborate with a business and they do an internship there. After, the internship, they’re ready with a resume and go and apply. They interview at a place and knock it out the park! There are many components…”
“We have Club Gigi where they can hang out (older kids and adults) There’s board games and movie nights. They like it. We are so thankful for the donations we receive, because it makes it a cool place for them to hangout. We have a service center. Besides my position as site coordinator, everything else, all our leads, assistants and literacy and math tutors are all volunteers. We would not to be able to be where we’re at and operate as we do, without them. We have a service center for them so we have supplies for them…”
Elizabeth Maxwell’s dedication and passion for Gigi’s Playhouse is inspirational. As she spoke with me, tears formed in her eyes, “We focus on more than just the disability. They wear their diagnosis and are always having to break stereo types. We need to soften our hearts and see how amazing and determined they are”.
Ms. Maxwell, also spoke of Generation G. The premise is a change in mind set, one should be more generous, kind and humble. The center opened in January of 2016 and serves 170 families. There is no cost to attend Gigi’s Playhouse and the center welcomes children and adults with Down Syndrome. Families are welcome to participate also. Kids and adults without Down Syndrome are also welcome. If you are interested in learning more about Gigi’s Playhouse, visit their website at http://www.gigishouse.org/cleveland or call 216-529-3333.