Community Spirit: Gigi’s Playhouse

Boosting the potential of another human being is one of the greatest gifts you can give. At GiGi’s Playhouse, potential is what it’s all about.

Opened in June, this nonprofit achievement center serves adults and children with Down syndrome, offering educational and therapeutic programs at no charge, and opportunities for families to share ideas and support.

Programs at GiGi’s Playhouse are focused on developing social, speech, motor and vocational skills, empowering people to achieve their greatest potential.

Resources are available to equip new parents, and coming this fall is “GiGi U,” a progressive learning program for adults, with goal development and small group skills instruction, physical fitness and work opportunities. The local center is the 31st GiGi’s Playhouse location in North America.

Pictured at right are GiGi’s board members, from left, Caroline Moore, site coordinator; Michelle Schwab; Rachel Geer; president Jeanhee Hoffman; Denise Lloyd; Maria Romano; and Michell Pfeiffer.  

“Families can view the calendar of activities online, and just come,” said local outreach leader Michelle Pfeiffer. Her own children, including daughter Anna, who has Down syndrome, are among the regulars at GiGi’s Playhouse.

Pfeiffer is known locally as the founder of Anna’s Angels Foundation, which funds Down syndrome research. The two organizations are not formally connected.

“Anna has always inspired me, but to see the young parents here at GiGi’s Playhouse … it brings me great joy to put my time and energy into helping to bring this to our community, as a place to feel loved and have fun,” Pfeiffer said.

“Our area has such a need, especially for teens and adults, to help bridge the gap after high school. Our vision is to have an adjacent business to provide jobs, such as a café. The more we invest in them, the more productive they can be in our society.”

The community is investing: More than $180,000 was raised to launch the center, and businesses such as PMC Commercial Interiors of Morrisville have donated goods and services. Volunteer professionals are stepping up to provide speech and physical therapies.

And thanks to Chapel Hill photographer Lili Engelhardt, a fundraising book will be available this holiday season through GiGi’s Playhouse, Anna’s Angels, the Triangle Down Syndrome Network, and Amazon. Portraits and stories of local families are chronicled in “Beautiful Souls: Down Syndrome Through the Eyes of the Ones We Love.”

The grand opening of GiGi’s Playhouse on June 18 attracted many supporters.

“GiGi’s Playhouse is simply a place,” said Jeanhee Hoffman, president of the new center. “It is a place for our children and adults with Down syndrome to come for our therapeutic programs. It is a place for our families to have a support system. It is a place to educate and bring awareness to our community about our individuals with Down syndrome to simply accept them into our community.”

“Disability is not an excuse”

Steve and Marie Meckman of Cary first heard about GiGi’s Playhouse via an online parent chatroom, then from friend Caroline Moore, who is now on staff at GiGi’s as site coordinator.

“It’s generated quite a bit of excitement,” said Steve Meckman. “It’s very beneficial to our community, and a great resource.

“Our children may be less functional than normally developing kids, but they still have potential and abilities, and they still need to be pushed,” he said. “Disability is not an excuse.”

The Meckmans’ son Ben, 14, is proof. Diagnosed with Down syndrome and autism, Ben works out at a local gym to counter the predisposition for low muscle tone that accompanies Down syndrome.
He may struggle with simple math, yet Ben can recognize birds by sound, and memorizes detailed facts about African wildlife, his dad says.

And Ben enjoys being with people even though he has difficulty interacting. The camaraderie at GiGi’s Playhouse helps, and the family is exploring the center’s numerous programs.

Pfeiffer points out that it’s not necessary to have a family member with Down syndrome to visit GiGi’s Playhouse. You can donate, or volunteer in various roles such as tutor, program leader and clean-up crew; teen volunteers are welcome, too.

“GiGi’s Playhouse is a place for the community,” Pfeiffer said. “It offers opportunities to be with people with Down syndrome, to get comfortable. And it’s our common cause, to help families.”

GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers
Swift Creek Shopping Center
2887 Jones Franklin Road, Raleigh,
at intersection of Tryon Road
(919) 307-3952
gigisplayhouse.org/Raleigh

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