by Jennifer Wehunt
GiGi Gianni is much like any other kindergartner. Six years old, she is obsessed with accessories, sings along to Hannah Montana on her iPod, attends a weekly gymnastics class, and knows how to wheedle her mom into making an unscheduled pit stop at Subway when hunger calls. GiGi also has Down syndrome. But don’t get hung up on that detail, says GiGi’s mother, Nancy Gianni, 42. Like her daughter, Gianni is someone who knows what she wants, and what she wants most is for everyone to see GiGi—and all children with Down syndrome—as regular kids. “Not like a big chromosome walking around,” says Gianni (who has three other children).
In fact, that is how others first reacted to GiGi. “When GiGi was born,” recalls Gianni, “they closed the door to my room. They turned the lights down low, and they kept sending in the clergy. They thought my life was over.”
Gianni felt otherwise. In June 2003, when GiGi was nine months old, GiannI told her husband, Paul, that she wanted to create a place where children with Down syndrome, along with their parents and siblings, could convene to learn, play, and network. The first GiGi’s Playhouse opened in Hoffman Estates in October 2003. Relying on fundraisers, personal donations, and scores of volunteers (there are no fees charged for the Playhouse’s services), Gianni has since helped launch three other locations: in Plainfield in 2005, and in Chicago and McHenry in 2008. (A satellite location in Westmont, which opened in 2007, offers limited programming.)
“For someone to come up with one location similar to GiGi’s Playhouse would be an awesome accomplishment,” says David Tolleson, the executive director of the National Down Syndrome Congress. “To have expanded so rapidly and to have met the needs of so many individuals is a testament to the love and dedication of Nancy and her team.”
Programming at the Playhouses ranges from toddlers’ groups designed to improve fine motor skills to teen pizza parties to a literacy program that teaches children as young as two years old to read. People interested in launching international GiGi’s outposts have come from as far as Australia, and the local families served number in the thousands. Up next are a Playhouse in Sioux City, Iowa, an increased focus on national awareness, and additional tutorial programs.
But her most important goal, Gianni says, is replacing the public’s negativity toward Down syndrome with a more positive message. “If, from the beginning, we can just get parents to accept the diagnosis, to celebrate the diagnosis, it will make each child’s life that much better.”