A Haven For Children with Down Syndrome

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photos provided by Gigi’s Playhouse

Thirteen years ago, Nancy Gianni was looking for a play space for her daughter, Gigi, who was born with Down syndrome. After being turned away by multiple locations, Gianni took her love for her daughter and poured it into the creation of Gigi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit Down Syndrome Achievement Center dedicated to providing support for children and their families. The first center opened near Schaumburg, Illinois. Since then, 33 playhouses have launched across the country, with a dozen more in the works. Indianapolis was the 19th location to open after a group of local moms rallied to assemble a founding board.

“Talk about a grassroots movement. These moms went to every fair and festival to inform people about their dream of bringing a GiGi’s to Indy,” says Denisse Jensen, Executive Director of the Indy location, which opened in 2015.

Why were these mothers so passionate?

“They wanted what every parent wants — to have a place where their child feels accepted,” says Jensen, who recalls the story of 16-year-old Denzel. Last year, he was in his backyard when he spotted two children playing together and asked his mom, “What’s that?” Her heart sank as she realized that he didn’t know what friendship looked like. When she found Gigi’s Playhouse, she had but one wish.

“I want my son to make friends,” she told Jensen. Now when Denzel sees his best friend, Javen, his eyes light up.

And he’s not the only one. Parents feel they hit the jackpot when they learn of all the therapeutic services, educational classes and one-on-one tutoring the center offers free of charge. Just because the services do not cost families, however, doesn’t mean they’re free to the playhouse. This is why Gigi’s holds two big fundraising benefits a year. The 3.21 walk is held in September — proceeds from that event go toward developing and funding various programs (they have 21 currently). In addition, in February they organize an annual black-tie gala with a silent auction at the Indiana Roof Ballroom. Proceeds from that affair cover staff and operating costs.

Clearly, there’s a need in the community. In just one year, the center grew by a whopping 70 percent.

“We started the playhouse with 60 families,” Jensen says. “Now, we’re serving over 350.”

Kendra Smith, a founding board member at Indy’s Gigi’s Playhouse, has an 8-year-old daughter, Lexi. Smith enjoys connecting with parents who share the same struggles and successes.

“For two years after Lexi was born, I had no parents to talk to,” Smith says. “Now, some of these people are my dearest friends.”

Thanks to a grant they received from the Finish Line Foundation, the center is building a 1,200-sq. ft. expansion, which is set to be completed this month. The space will include a therapy gym with swings, stairs and an adaptive rock wall.

“It’s exciting that our inner-city and lower income families will have this equipment at their disposal with no cost to them,” Jensen says.

They also plan to incorporate Gigi U, a three-tiered adult education progression program to help adults with Down syndrome learn to manage their money and improve their cooking skills.

In addition, the center connects families with community resources.

“For instance, we let parents know that IU Health has a great car seat program for Down syndrome kids,” Jensen says. “Or if you’re looking for horse therapy for a school-age child, we can direct you to the four places that offer it.”

And then, of course, there’s the friendships.

“I’ve always been the one to set up playdates for Lexi,” Smith says. “But last year, one of Lexi’s friends called to initiate a playdate. It was the highlight of my year.”

Sometimes pregnant women come to the center after having just gotten their prenatal diagnosis.

“They’re overwhelmed initially,” Smith says. “Then they see all these joyful kids running around succeeding and the burden is lightened.”

The general public often has the misconception that Down syndrome children lack ability.

“We just have to be willing to think outside the box to empower them and not limit them,” Jensen says. “Our participants have big dreams. With the right support, they can reach them.”

To learn more about Gigi’s Playhouse, located at 5909 E. 86th Street, visit gigisplayhouse.org.

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