When Carla Flores was told over the phone in April 2012 that her newborn daughter, Samantha, had been diagnosed with Down syndrome, she fell into a fit of rage.
"I was beyond devastated," she said. "I felt like somebody had passed away. It was terrible. I was scared of the unknown, I guess."
But the Melrose Park mother and countless other parents in similar situations have found hope and support at GiGi's Playhouse in Hoffman Estates, a Down syndrome awareness and educational center that provides free therapeutic programs, peer mentoring and other resources for families touched by the syndrome.
"I just feel comfortable here. The moms know what I'm going through," Flores said on a recent Thursday afternoon, as a quiet, smiling Samantha played on a toy xylophone .
To accommodate growing interest in GiGi's Playhouses across the nation, a National Achievement Center is being built at 2350 Higgins Road in Hoffman Estates. It will be located a few miles from the original playhouse on Golf Road that was opened by Nancy Gianni in 2003.
The 10,000-square-foot complex will house exciting new programs for adults with Down syndrome in GiGi University, as well as learning labs, a play area, a gym, a multipurpose room and the group's national offices.
"This is really a statement that people are believing in us, that they believe in our kids," Gianni said, adding that she is especially grateful to the village of Hoffman Estates for giving her a chance to start the organization 10 years ago, shortly after she gave birth to her daughter GiGi.
The new building is scheduled to open Sunday, Oct. 27, during the organization's annual GiGi Fest.
"It will be such a celebration that day," Gianni said, admitting, however, that she is feeling the same butterflies in her stomach she felt when she opened the first playhouse, though the causes are different.
Her concerns back then were that people wouldn't be interested in the idea of GiGi's Playhouse.
It turned out she had nothing to worry about. In one decade, 14 additional GiGi's Playhouses have opened and the organization recently expanded to Mexico, leaving Gianni in awe at how much her idea has grown.
"It's kind of surreal," she said, adding that there about 100 requests to open more GiGi's Playhouses.
While the organization is clearly finding success, fundraising for the National Achievement Center is daunting.
The total cost is estimated to be between $750,000 and $800,000. So far, about $250,000 has been donated.
Gianni has faith potential donors will see the value of opening a bigger, better space in Hoffman Estates.
"It's not just the Hoffman playhouse; it's the national office," Gianni said, adding that plans for the center have been in the works for about two years. "We really need that core model, and we need it to be an incubator for all the new programs."
The current location is cramped, with employees working in oddly shaped offices that have ceilings open to the main playroom, creating a noisy workplace. There are only two learning labs to serve more than 70 students who come in for tutoring with volunteers, and the building is geared more toward children than adults. Parents don't have a separate area to meet and there isn't space for exercise equipment.
It's a building Gianni said the organization outgrew about five years ago.
Construction at the new location still has a long way to go, with wires, lights and blueprints scattered about the big, open space. Steel beams outlining where the rooms will be make the dream more real.
Guests will be greeted with colorful walls and photos of children and adults who have utilized GiGi's Playhouse programs. Inside, they will find a larger play area with toys and benches, along with new additions like a small library, mobile education carts and an art studio.
Focus on adults
Baby Olivia is still a few months away from turning 2, but her mother, Jaimie Rios, of South Barrington, is already thinking about the playful little girl's future.
"When you have a baby with Down syndrome, it's crazy, your brain jumps 20, 30 years ahead: Is she going to be OK? What happens if I die? You want to be able to give them as much autonomy as you can," Rios said.
There will be an increased focus on adults at the new center with the launch of GiGi University, a program for people ages 22 and older with Down syndrome.
"The adult programing is something I've wanted to do ever since we opened," Gianni said. "Now it's time to move on to that next step and really start taking care of our adults."
GiGi University will meet three days a week and focus on three core areas: confidence, health and whole self.
Participants will also have a chance to do a 15- to 17-week internship at retail store called Hugs & Mugs, which will sell keepsake mugs stuffed with chocolate and baked goods. Roughly 2,000 square feet of the National Achievement Center will be dedicated to the store, which will have a separate entrance for the public.
The adults will be involved in every part of the store's operation, Gianni said. That includes preparing treats at Morkes Chocolate in Palatine and Thompson's Bakery in Hoffman Estates; creating art for the mugs; printing and packaging items; and providing customer service at the store.
"We have to have people look at them as more than just being able to work in a distribution center," Gianni said of the adults. "They need to be in the front lines."
After completing career training at Hugs & Mugs, the adults will move on to paid employment in the community or be provided opportunities to explore hobbies.
Rios and Flores are hopeful their daughters will be future participants in the program.
"I want Olivia to grow up and be completely OK if something happens to me and GiGi U is taking them that direction, to where they can be autonomous," Rios said. "They can learn life skills. They can learn how to get a job, get a paycheck, how to work in a work environment and how to keep themselves healthy."
Reaching the goal
All services at every GiGi's Playhouse are free for families, and the organization intends to keep things that way. To do so, it relies on donations.
Drywall, paint, carpet -- the list of items needed for the new center is long, but no donation is too small, said Development Director Marc Portugal.
Architecture firm Perkins + Will has already donated drawings and renderings and Pepper Construction is waiving project management fees. Major donors will have opportunities to be recognized at the new location during GiGi's Playhouse events and in family communications, Portugal said.
"Supporting GiGi's Playhouse is not just a financial transaction. It's literally an investment in a better world," he said. "There's nothing but positive outcomes in our equations. They just take time and money."
Despite all the excitement and ambition that has come about in planning the new center, employees and families are calling the move bittersweet.
"The space right now is so warm and so friendly and it's really a wonderful space because it has a lot of history behind it ... we're going to lose that and it's sad," Rios said. "But what we're gaining is unbelievable, beyond anything we could ever dream of."
For information about the National Center or to donate to the project, visit gigisplayhouse.org/buildingadream or contact Marc Portugal at (312) 371-2660.
Growing: 'It's literally an investment in a better world,' development director says