Mother's Day was never quite the same for Nancy Gianni after she gave birth to her daughter GiGi, who had Down syndrome. Then again, why should it be? The little girl inspired Hoffman Estates-based GiGi's Playhouse, which opened in 2003 to provide therapeutic programs, peer mentoring and other resources. It has since grown to 15 playhouses in Illinois, Iowa, Georgia, Minnesota, New York and soon in Queretaro, Mexico. More are being planned.
In October, Gigi's Playhouse will mark its 10th anniversary by moving into a newly built headquarters and national training center in Hoffman Estates, which provides room for more growth of the organization to help other children and adults with the syndrome, said Gianni, the founder and CEO.
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"It's been a gift from God," Gianni said.
In August 2002, GiGi was born and her parents learned she had Down syndrome. They also had to quickly get her into surgery to repair two holes in her heart.
"We were blindsided by the diagnosis," she said.
Everything changed the day of her daughter's birth, yet much of it changed in a way that Gianni didn't expect.
"When you take away the fear, you see her as a little girl, a sibling, someone to love and to be celebrated," Gianni said.
And that celebration came in the form of Gigi's Playhouse, which opened in Hoffman Estates in 2003 with community support and about $25,000 in donations. That project led to hundreds of inquiries from others wanting to learn more about the center. Other local Gigi's Playhouses are in Aurora and McHenry.
So far, the organization behind Gigi's Playhouse has received support nationwide to open similar facilities to help local children and adults, Gianni said.
Even 10-year-old Gigi has talked in front of crowds and if she stumbles on a few words, she puts her hand up and says, "Calm your body" to herself, and she continues on, her mother said.
Father Paul Gianni is on the board of Gigi's Playhouse and helps with fundraising. While there are six employees at the headquarters in Hoffman Estates, each playhouse is primarily run by volunteers, Gianni said.
"There are so many children who have Down syndrome and not many places for them to go and to learn more about things," Gianni said.
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