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GiGi’s Playhouse celebrates first anniversary

July 26, 2018
Pine Island Eagle

A nonprofit, nationwide organization, came into existence more than a decade ago to change the way the world views a Down Syndrome diagnosis. Last year, GiGi's Playhouse, opened a location in Fort Myers to further provide free programs and resources to families in Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties.

GiGi's Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center Fort Myers Site Coordinator Kristie Sammons said founder Nancy Gianni began the nationwide nonprofit GiGi's Playhouse 14 years ago after her daughter GiGi was born because she did not know much about working with individuals with Down Syndrome.

"What she felt her daughter needed did not exist," Sammons said, adding that Gianni decided to make something happen.

The first playhouse opened outside of Chicago. Fourteen years later there are 37 locations, including one in Mexico.

The Fort Myers location, celebrating its first anniversary Saturday, July 28, began with four parents, now board members, who have children with Down Syndrome. Sammons said they saw a need not only for their own children, but other children in the community.

The first anniversary celebration is open to the public. It will be held from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at GiGi's Playhouse, 1901 Brantley Road, Unit 11. The highlight of the event is author Megan O'Halloran speaking and signing copies of her book "Up Syndrome." Other activities will include such a disco room, cornhole games and a sensory play area with a ball pit.

"When we do an event we try to make it about something for everyone. Something for every age group," she said.

Sammons said it is also important for parents to see what their child can achieve.

"We are examples. We have examples of what they can do. There is always something they can achieve," she said.

Sammons said one of the biggest things she hears is most mothers go through a grieving process when they find out their child has Down Syndrome, which leaves them feeling guilty.

"We like to let families know that these are all very natural and common reactions. It doesn't mean you are a bad person. (The news) is something different from what your expectation was," Sammons said. "We offer them our support."

That support comes in various ways, one of which is families already involved in the playhouse putting their name on a "call me list." That list is given to a new family that needs to talk.

"We strive to be a support for the entire family - siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents - get them all active and get them involved," she said. "The more people you have involved, the better, with any child. You need the extra support and extra people around you."

Sammons continued by stating that they help from the very beginning.

"We have two moms that are both due to give birth in October," she said, adding that they had a pre-birth diagnosis of their child having Down Syndrome. "They are getting involved now. One of the moms has gone through volunteering orientation and have several friends that are doing the same. They want to get involved to benefit their own child and to help out other children here."

The beauty of GiGi's Playhouse is everyone gets involved at a different time, when they feel comfortable reaching out and seeking additional resources.

"We very much like to provide them with as much information as we can. We want them to feel welcome to participate in any capacity they feel comfortable with," Sammons said.

There are currently 106 families that are active in the playhouse ranging in age from newborn to 56 years old. There are an additional 10 families interested in the playhouse.

"Most of our outreach has been through social media, hospitals and word of mouth," Sammons said.

Sometimes families do not reach out for help because of a perceived language barrier or a transportation issue, but they work hard to welcome everyone.

They are working on getting a van to help with transportation issues, as well as having Spanish-speaking individuals at the playhouse to act as translators. In addition, the national office is working on putting together Spanish versions of everything, from programs to pamphlets.

"We have had four new Spanish-speaking families sign up and participate," she said.

Another way the playhouse offers assistance is through their many programs, all free of charge for the families.

The programs are geared towards all ages, from birth through death. All, but one are group programs. All of the group programs are offered on Saturdays at various times. The programs and times are posted on their online calendar months in advance.

"Most parents need to work. We don't want it to be where they can't come. Usually everyone has some time off," Sammons said.

LMNOP is offered for birth to 3 years old; Leaps and Bounds is for 3 to 5 year old and Fantastic Friends is geared towards those 18 years old and older.

"Destination Discovery is for all ages coming together to help each other," Sammons said.

All of the programs are run through volunteers, who go through specific training. There are 170 volunteers in the database, 40 to 50 are consistently active.

The programs includes a lesson plan, craft and activities where they are up and moving. The program also includes a snack, which for the adult group they make their own to learn about nutrition.

"Everything has a purpose," Sammons said, which focus on such areas as fine motor skills, speech, communication and muscle tone.

Other programs includes Friends, Fun and Fitness, a Cross Fit class, and a therapeutic dance instructor who provides classes.

Another program, which has been successful, is their literacy tutoring program which starts at the age of 3. Again, volunteers go through a training process to ensure everyone is benefiting from the program.

"All programs are developed by the top people in their field. They know how they learn and how it works," Sammons said.

GiGi's Playhouse is in need of volunteers for the literacy tutoring program, which requires a commitment of once a week for 10 weeks.

"They don't have to have any previous education experience. We do all of the training," Sammons said.

A 10-week commitment is important because it can be difficult for a child with Down Syndrome to develop a bond with security, safety and trust in someone new.

"We need the tutors to develop the bond with them. It helps with their learning," she said.

The one-on-one program encourages everyone to get involved, the child and the parents. The parents are provided with the materials they need to continue the tutoring at home.

"We could have a student that comes in that is completely nonverbal. Within 10 weeks they can carry on a conversation with you," Sammons said. "Every student learns differently. The progress is going to vary, but you can always see an improvement."

The literacy tutoring program is held at various times, depending on the availability of both the family and the tutor.

"Our biggest need is literacy tutors," she said of volunteers. "Our program has had a phenomenal response."

The Fort Myers location, as any other new location, went through a process to open its doors. That process began four years ago for the Brantley Road location.

What starts out as an idea, turns into working with the national office putting a plan together, which includes having fundraisers before picking a location and opening the doors.

"You have a full year's funding budget in the bank before the doors even open," Sammons said. "It helps because you are a year ahead. If you stay on your fundraising you stay a year ahead."

She said this method changed a few years after the organization began because when the donations slowed down, doors were closing a few months after opening.

Although smaller fundraisers are held throughout the year, there is an annual Gala, this year Oct. 13, complete with silent and live auctions.

"There are individuals and businesses that donate to us on a regular basis," Sammons said.

One of the ways individuals donate is through Amazon Smile, where GiGi's Playhouse has a Wishlist of items that they need.

"We have one particular gentleman that does it on a monthly basis," she said of his Amazon Smile purchase.

The man donates every month because he lost his ninth grandchild during the third month of the mother's pregnancy - a little boy who had Down Syndrome.

His son, who lives in North Carolina, donates to the GiGi's Playhouse there in memory of his nephew, Sammons said.

Those interested in seeking more information can stop by the office, 1901 Brantley Road, Unit 11, anytime from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Individuals can also call (239) 703-7960, email, or visit

Editor's note: This story has been edited, including a correction of the anniversary party date.



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