Five-and-a-half years ago, Nancy Gianni created Gigi's Playhouse in Hoffman Estates for children with down syndrome and their families. They have now five playhouses, and with Nancy's commitment, they will have them all over the United States.
"I remember when we first opened, and our opening, no one really know, What is a down syndrome awareness center, what is it going to be?" said Nancy. "And I kind of thought it was just going to be me and my mom and, you know, no one else being there, and we had almost a thousand people at that opening."
This was just the beginning of Gigi's Playhouse. After giving birth to her daughter, Gigi, who has down syndrome, Nancy knew she had to make a difference for her daughter and others after receiving mixed messages from the medical community.
"We realized she was more like my other three kids than she was different, and that's when I decided to show the world, you know, try to take away some of that fear associated with just the words 'down syndrome.' Take away some of that fear and show the tremendous potential that our kids have," Nancy said.
Since opening the first Gigi's Playhouse, it has grown tremendously with a variety of programs, ranging from literacy to social development and educational resources.
Nancy's energy and support has made a difference for so many families, like Randi Gillespe and her 4 1/2-year-old daughter Madeline Grace.
"The people that are involved in Gigi's Playhouse, from Nancy who is just a breath of fresh air, you know, I remember meeting her and it was like she was my best friend, she just gave me the biggest hug and saw my daughter Madeline and started playing with Made and gave her ooh's and aahh's, a lot of kisses, and then when I met Nancy again she remembered out names," Randi said.
Peggy Delaney and her 16-month-old son Jack are benefitting from Nancy's efforts.
"It's made a huge difference in our life," Peggy said, "made it joyful taking Jack out and just wanting to say, 'Here's my baby, isn't he great?' is the most exciting part of everyday. And I don't know if I really would have celebrated that right when he was born if it wasn't for Gigi's Playhouse, it just made me very proud to have my little boy in my life."
Nancy's commitment to raise awareness about down syndrome has been recognized beyond families of children with down syndrome. She was voted one of 2008's Chicagoans of the year by Chicago Magazine.
"They called and told me that I had been given this incredible honor," said Nancy. "I screamed and jumped around for along time, and then they told me. I went to a luncheon where I was presented with an award and The Tribune Foundation gave me a thousand dollar donation to the playhouse and it was fantastic."
As a mother, Nancy is just trying to give her daughter with down syndrome the best life possible in a positive environment.
"You know, they all thank me and I thank them more than they can ever, you know, they do more for me and so do the kids than anything," Nancy said.
Gigi's Playhouse has five locations, four in the Chicago area and one in Iowa. For more information go to www.gigisplayhouse.org