When Nancy Gianni's daughter, GiGi, was born, doctors knew there was something different about her. An hour after her birth, doctors diagnosed GiGi with Down syndrome. While new challenges arose for Nancy, GiGi and the rest of the Gianni family, Nancy wasn't going to let her brood face them lying down.
Driven by her new daughter's struggles and wanting to form a place where parents, children and families touched by Down syndrome could gather, learn and grow, Nancy started GiGi's Playhouse, an awareness center in Hoffman Estates.
That was nine years ago. Now GiGi's Playhouse has expended to 14 locations across the globe—including one coming to Oak Forest.
Driving the creation and development of the Oak Forest location is Diane Husar. Husar, who like Gianni has a child with Down syndrome, said that her hope is to one day have a place where her son and others affected by Down can not only learn, but hang out and grow as people, too.
“Each GiGi's offers what the community needs,” she said. “From reading and math tutoring to physical therapy. I'm trying to get the GiGi's open now so that when my son is an adult, he can go there with his friends and hang out. So that, he and others can have somewhere safe to be.”
From what she has seen and heard in Oak Forest, the community is fully backing the effort to get the latest GiGi's off the ground. She pointed to a recent paint party as an example of just what the GiGi's effort means to the city.
“It started out as a very personal goal because of my son,” she said. “But, we had a paint party on Sunday and literally over 30 people came out, they just kept coming in the door. … It was so amazing, they just kept coming, we just kept painting more and more rooms. It was just amazing.”
Husar said that GiGi's Playhouse will offer classes, activities and physical therapy free of charge to guests, with all costs paid through fundraising and donations.
“There's no membership fee, no dues, no charge for classes,” she said. “It's all fundraising, personal donations and things like that.”
Husar said she hopes the Oak Forest location will open in September 2013. She added that the biggest hurdle was finding a space to house the location, something that Mayor Hank Kuspa assisted with. Kuspa donated the location of the GiGi's Playhouse and that another of his ideas will be used for the next GiGi's fundraiser on Dec. 9.
“Our mayor attended a board meeting and we were brainstorming fundraiser ideas and he said he'd been Santa for the last 32 years,” she said. “So, we thought, why not do 'Supper with Santa'? So, that's how we came up with the idea.”
The Supper with Santa event will take place Dec. 9, from 2 to 6 p.m. At the GiGi's Playhouse location, 5400 W. 159th Street. Houser said the event will feature food, soda, activities for children, singing and stories. The cost for the event is $10 per person, with children under 5 free.
For more information about GiGi's Playhouse in Oak Forest, visit their Facebook page.