Hoffman Estates honors Gigi's Playhouse and its founder

Nancy Gianni remembers the first time she walked into Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod's office more than a dozen years ago to ask for his support of her nonprofit organization, GiGi's Playhouse.

“I was a wreck. My business cards weren't even dry,” Gianni recalls, “but I was a mom on a mission.”

Right from the start, Gianni says, the mayor assured her of the village's full support and he helped get the organization off the ground.

“I told him, ‘We can change the world one child at a time, one diagnosis at a time, and one community at a time,'” Gianni says, “and he's been there for us every day.”

Her mission started shortly after the birth of her third child, GiGi, born with Down syndrome. Intent on improving the lives of people with the chromosomal disorder, Gianni's organization offered children educational opportunities, a social outlet and, ultimately, a way to help build their self-esteem.

Fast forward 13 years. GiGi's Playhouse is a national prototype that was named a CNN Hero finalist earlier this year and showcased around the world for its ability to “lift up families living with Down syndrome.”

McLeod and the Hoffman Estates board of trustees honored Gianni on Tuesday for her CNN recognition. It was an emotional moment that drew nearly 50 people to their feet in a standing ovation.

“Nancy is one of the most dynamic, amazing people I've ever met,” McLeod said. “She had this vision and she's made it work. She literally drives its success.”

Since CNN started showcasing unsung heroes in 2007, more than 50,000 nominations have been submitted from 100 countries. Of those, only 200 have been chosen.

The achievement center remains headquartered in Hoffman Estates, though greatly expanded from its original storefront facility. It now takes up 10,000 square feet and also features GiGi's University — a progressive learning program for adults — and Hugs & Mugs, a full service gift shop and cafe offering adults with Down syndrome work experience and training.

Programming is free to all participants and runs the gamut from play sessions and parent groups, to art classes and a cooking club, to literacy and math tutoring.

Earlier this month, Gianni attended the opening of the 31st GiGi's Playhouse in Raleigh, North Carolina. This newest center brings to 25,000 the number of participants and families who benefit from the range of free programs and classes offered.

Kristin Malek of Libertyville addressed the crowd, both as chief operating officer of GiGi's and as the mother of Katelynn, a 7-year-old with Down syndrome.

“From day one of our involvement, there has been never ending hope that comes with Katelynn's achievements through GiGi's Playhouse,” Malek said.

Malek said CNN clearly doesn't choose their Heroes lightly. She described the one-month vetting process that reviewed the Playhouse's mission and financial structure.

“When we learned we were selected, it felt like we were accepted to Harvard,” Malek said. “But the true meaning of being named a CNN hero is that all of the participants and families are empowered.”

A pair of videos about GiGi's Playhouse and its founder can be found on CNN's website. This fall, more voting will whittle down the Heroes to the final 10. A 2016 CNN hero will be chosen at the end of the year.

Gianni and her organization continue to move forward, and are considering expanding their online content.

“I still remember our grand opening,” Gianni says of the original Hoffman Estates storefront. “We figured we'd draw a couple hundred and we drew 1,000 people. There was so much positive energy. These were all people ready to see the world differently.”

  Nancy Gianni, Mayor Bill McLeod and Gigi Gianni pose with a framed certificate of recognition from Hoffman Estates for Gigi's Playhouse being named a CNN Hero. Patrick Kunzer/
  The audience in the Hoffman Estates Village Hall rises in a standing ovation. Patrick Kunzer/
  Gigi Gianni, for whom the Playhouse is named, speaks to Hoffman Estates officials and citizens at the reception. Patrick Kunzer/
  Nancy and Gigi Gianni share an embrace. Patrick Kunzer/
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