Ten years later, Gigi is still changing lives
On a sunny Wednesday morning, Nancy Gianni sits in Club GiGi, located inside the Hoffman Estates location of GiGi's Playhouse, the first Down Syndrome Awareness Center she created, named for her daughter.
The proud mom of four can't help but boast how well her daughter, GiGi, is doing in school.
"Geege (as she affectionately calls her daughter) was the first one in third grade to be able to memorize the full map," Gianni said. "She was able to fill out a map in three minutes before anyone else in school."
Gianni created GiGi's Playhouse in 2003 in honor and support of her daughter GiGi, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome when she was born in 2002.
Prior to creating the playhouse, Gianni was desperate to find other parents like herself for support. She said she would walk around Woodfield Mall trying to find parents to connect with. There were no support groups that could offer help on a daily basis or when it was most needed.
"It would be once a month in some hospital room, wherever they could fit us," she recalls.
But since those early days, Gianni, GiGi and the franchise, GiGi's Playhouse, have come a long way.
"She was a year old when we opened, and I got the idea probably when she was about 4 or 5 months old," Gianna said. "After I thought about it, I knew I wanted to open it in October for Down Syndrome Awareness Month. It was tough because I couldn't even get a permit since there was nothing like this across the country."
In October, it will be 10 years since GiGi's Playhouse opened its doors and now, there are 13 playhouses and seven others in different stages of opening, including an expansion into a new 10,000-square-foot headquarters in Hoffman Estates.
The Playhouse is an educational center providing special resources, teaching and overall support for those with Down syndrome and their families. Part of what makes it so successful is the programs they use to teach their children different skill sets. There are a total of 20 programs, 15 of which are geared toward education, Gianni said.
"It's based on proven methodologies within the Down syndrome world," Gianni said. "We've taken the best methodologies and used that in our programming. We'll do an educator open house here at the Playhouses and educators will come in. First we do our presentation on how our kids learn, then we like to hear from them what's working for them and we take questions. We also go to the schools and do inservices in the school."
Two of the most successful programs GiGi's Playhouse has to offer are the literacy and their math programs.
"It's amazing, the literacy program, because we're literally teaching them they way they learn," Gianni said. "The teachers (at her school) also recognized the math program because GiGi started counting by 2s and 5s."
Gianni is most thrilled, however, with how successful the literacy program has become.
"There's nothing better than a kindergartner with Down syndrome starting school reading better than their peers," Gianni said. "Eventually (the other students) will catch up, but what a gift, because that school then raises that expectation. The kids around them, it raises their expectations."
The teachers at the local schools have taken time out of their schedules to learn the programs and study the way children with Down syndrome learn and, in turn, incorporate those methods into their classrooms.
"It's just a lot of collaboration with the schools, which we can't ask for more than that," Gianni said, adding that teachers are doing it on their own time. "It's really, really amazing and we hope more schools will take advantage of it."
One concept they share is that students with Down syndrome learn with a lot of repetition and they need things repeated to them multiple times before they can completely comprehend what is being taught. Things need to constantly be brought back up to the front of their minds in order for them to remember it, Gianni said.
"We call it the junk drawer analogy," Gianni said. "Picture a junk drawer, it's Easter and you're looking for your melon baller. All the stuff you use all the time is right up front." But in looking for the melon baller, "you see your garlic press, can opener -- you have all these distractions trying to get to that one. Then, you find the melon baller and it goes back to the front of that drawer so when you need it again, it's right there."
That is the way the brain works of a child that has Down syndrome.
"When they're using something constantly, it's on the tip, but then it kind of gets lost in the back," Gianni said. "That's why we have to keep bringing things back to the front of the junk drawer. That's kind of how our teaching goes by using those flash cards and bringing it all back to the front so it's always there."
That process is how GiGi became the first student in her class to fill out a map all on her own.
"They kind of taught her in categories," she said. "They didn't teach her by region, which is typically how it is taught, because region doesn't mean anything to her. They taught her by what she likes -- Montana, oh Hannah Montana; Florida, 'Nana' lives in Florida. Whatever is meaningful and relevant is what's going to keep them involved and keep them interested, so that's how they taught her."
And, now Gigi has a personal connection to another country. In August, the Gianni family flew to Queretaro, Mexico, to attend the grand opening of the first Gigi's Playhouse location outside of the United States.
Gianni said more than 500 people attended the opening in Mexico, which surpassed her expectations. In Mexico, she said, families tend to shelter children with Down syndrome.
"Here was a place they could go with dignity instead of hide, which is what culturally they have done," she said, "They had every demographic there, from the poor farmers to the elite."
Gianni is expanding in this country also, by rebranding the franchise from a Down Syndrome Awareness Center to a Down Syndrome Achievement Center. She also is working to open GiGi U, a progressive learning center for ages 22 and up. It will give the older students an opportunity to have an internship within the university. Once GiGi U is in full swing, Gianni plans on starting a GiGi Prep, which will be based on a similar curriculum as GiGi U.
Gianni said that if it weren't for the help of the people around her she would never be able to accomplish what she has.
"That tutor giving her time, giving everything she has because she believes in that girl," she said. "That's why I keep going. If I didn't have all of these amazing people in my life that continue to give ... it's the volunteers, it's the families."
What: 10th annual GigiFest and grand opening of new 10,000-square-foot facility
Where: 2350 W. Higgins Road, Hoffman Estates
When: Sunday, Oct. 27
Includes: Pony rides, petting zoo, pumpkin decorating, free food and the annual "red carpet walk" for the kids in the annual Gigi's Playhouse calendar
New facility: Almost triple the size of the current facility on Golf Road, the new building will house a gym, classroms for the new Gigi University for adults, a training center, offices for the headquarters, and Hugs & Mugs, a training business and retail store offering chocolate and bakery treats in mugs to be operated by adults with Down syndrome.