Gigi's Playhouse raises awareness of Down syndrome

August 18, 2011 10:08:53 AM PDT
A local not-for-profit organization serving people with Down syndrome has turned into an international sensation.

Gigi's Playhouse opened 8 years ago in the suburban Hoffman Estates. They have several locations in Illinois and Iowa; one in New York and Atlanta; and soon there will be one opening in Mexico City.

At Chicago's Gigi's Playhouse, children with Down syndrome, their siblings and parents hang out.

"When you have a child with Down syndrome, or when you have a family member with Down syndrome, you're looking for a place to go," said Aaron Baar, president of the Chicago's Gigi's Playhouse. "It's very hard to get people to come to your house or you have to really be proactive, but this is a place where you can actually just be and you can go be yourself and have the short hand of having a family member with Down syndrome and just be there with other people that are like you without having to search them out."

Baar's 8-year-old son Colin has Down syndrome.

"I have to be honest, before he was born, I didn't know what the rate was. I just sort of said, 'It's not going to be me.' We weren't in any risk category. We weren't older parents at that time or anything like that," Baar said.

All playhouses are run by a board of directors who also volunteers along with a paid staff of two. A number of activities are provided at the playhouses, ranging from reading, math and skills building to general social gatherings for different age groups.

Cheryl Bane's daughter Quincy is 13.

"She interested in drama, music dancing and she loves time at Gigi's Playhouse," Bane said. "I sort of wish they had Gigi's when Quincy was a lot younger cause it's great way for not only the kids to get together and form friendships but for the parents to get together and support each other and share resources."

Sarah Wuellner has a 20-month-old named Mia.

"Right after Mia was born, when we got her diagnosis, a number of moms in the community reached out to us and said you've got to start coming to Gigi's," Wuellner said. "It helps me in so many ways. It's been great to get to know other moms and see what other kids can do."

The playhouses also have a traveling photo gallery called "i have a voice."

"That travels around the country to public places to be out there spread awareness and say, 'I have a voice and I'm here and let's celebrate this,'" Baar said. "We just started putting some billboards up for the same reason -- to build that awareness."

"I know there's a lot more talk about Down syndrome -- people see signs even just in front of Gigi's Playhouse. They see the pictures of kids with Down syndrome just doing things any other kid would do," Bane said.

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