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A Voice for the Good: GiGi's Playhouse Fort Wayne

3Rivers is proud to support so many of the non-profit organizations that are committed to making our community a better place to live, work, and play, and we want to help spread the word about the difference they're making in our region. We’ve teamed up with 97.3WMEE to bring you A Voice for the Good podcast to do just that! We’re temporarily bringing the podcast to you via these Q&A online articles, as we’re doing our part to social distance and keep our community safe.

This article features GiGi's Playhouse—a local non-profit on a mission to “change the way the world views Down syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all.” GiGi's Playhouse provides FREE, life-changing therapeutic, educational and career training programs for 30,000+ individuals of all ages throughout the United States and Mexico.

GiGis Playhouse Logo

How did GiGi’s Playhouse come to be? What’s the history/story behind how the organization initially got started?

GiGi’s Playhouse began in 2003 after the birth of Nancy Gianni’s daughter, GiGi. Nancy wanted a place where GiGi and individuals with Down syndrome would be celebrated. Here in Fort Wayne, it started after Doug and Cindy Atkinson’s first granddaughter, Charlotte, was born with Down syndrome. Like Nancy, Doug and Cindy wanted a place where Charlotte would be celebrated. GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne was the 29th location to open, and the network now has 55 Playhouses. GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne is only one of two playhouses nationally to have a café on site to provide real-world career training opportunities. GiGi’s Genesis Health Bar opened in 2018 and provides 28 adults with Down syndrome with training in a café open to the public.

What is the official mission of GiGi’s Playhouse, and how is it currently being put into play?

  • Our Mission and Purpose: To change the way the world views Down syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all.
  • Our Vision: To see a world where individuals with Down syndrome are accepted and embraced in their families, schools and communities.
  • Our Niche: We change lives through consistent delivery of free educational, therapeutic-based and career development programs for individuals with Down syndrome, their families and the community, through a replicable playhouse model.
  • Our Promise: A lifetime commitment to families.

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne puts this mission into play by extending free, purposeful programming to individuals with Down syndrome, while reaching the broader community to build awareness about Down syndrome.

GiGis Playhouse

How do you see the mission and vision of GiGi’s Playhouse evolving into the future? Where do you see this organization a year from now, or even five years from now?

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne continues to evolve to meet the needs of individuals with Down syndrome in Northeast Indiana. As we serve more families from surrounding counties, northwest Ohio and Southwest Michigan, we’re hopeful to expand satellite programming in the future to serve even more individuals with Down syndrome.

Are there any exciting new developments, updates, or changes that have recently taken place at GiGi’s Playhouse?

The pandemic forced National Office and our local Playhouse to rethink how we deliver programs. In March 2020, GiGi’s Playhouse National Office launched GiGi’s At Home one week after all programming was suspended due to the pandemic. Although virtual programming was on the horizon for the 2021 strategic plan, the National Playhouse moved up the virtual programming and implemented it within one week. Today, GiGi’s At Home is reaching more than 71+ countries.

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne also made adaptations to ensure our adults with Down syndrome received meaningful experiences in our Health Bar while foot traffic slowed due to the pandemic. With a shift in our business model, the Health Bar is now offering catering for local businesses and wholesale sandwiches, wraps and salads for All-American Gas Stations. 

Could you share a standout story or two that really illustrates the impact GiGi’s Playhouse and/or its programs has on individuals in our community?

As we looked for more ways to provide real-world career training opportunities as foot traffic to the Health Bar declined due to the pandemic, our team reached out to various Food Trucks to host Food Truck Fridays throughout the summer. Seven Food Truck owners participated in Food Truck Friday, allowing 2-3 Ambassadors on the truck to work with them during the Friday lunch rush in our parking lot in front of GiGi’s Playhouse and Genesis Health Bar. Food Truck Fridays provided our Ambassadors with a different type of cuisine to help prepare, create and serve throughout the summer. One of our Ambassadors, Bethany, signed up to participate in every Food Truck Friday. She insisted on staying on the truck for the entire 3 hours. We discussed the possibility of Bethany applying to work on the Salsa Grille Food Truck as she worked independently, taking orders and creating each individual dish. We're hopeful that Bethany will be employed on a Food Truck next summer. The program helped grow career training opportunities beyond our walls, giving our Ambassadors new meaningful experiences, while helping reach more members of the community and demonstrate the abilities of our adults with Down syndrome.

Megan graduated from GiGi U. several years ago and has continued to work in Genesis Health Bar two days per week. Over this past year, Megan has gained more independence in the Health Bar. When Megan comes in for her shift, she finds her chef coat, completes the checklist to begin her shift, and immediately starts setting up the salad bar for the day. Megan helps direct and guide her peers as they prepare the salad bar for the day. In addition to Megan's independence, Megan's confidence has also grown. Megan greets customers and takes their orders without being prompted.

GiGis Playhouse

How do families go about qualifying and/or inquiring about support from GiGi’s Playhouse? What does that process look like?

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne’s programs are 100% free for the community. An interested family or participant can come into the Playhouse for a tour, register and begin attending programs the same day!

Are there other local non-profit organizations that GiGi’s Playhouse works/partners with to enhance their programs?

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne relies on many partnerships to enhance our programs. We partner with Trine University’s Physical Therapy program to provide a free fitness program, GiGiFIT to help tone and strengthen muscles as individuals with Down syndrome have hypotonia, or low muscle tone.

We also partner with Purdue Fort Wayne’s Communication Sciences and Disorders Department to provide free speech therapy to our participants with Down syndrome.

We also work closely with DSANI (Down Syndrome Association of Northeast Indiana) to partner on various initiatives and programs to ensure our families have the resources needed.

Are there opportunities for community members to volunteer at GiGi’s Playhouse—and if so, how can they go about learning more?

Yes, absolutely. GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne is 99 percent volunteer-led. We have volunteer opportunities ranging from one-on-one tutoring to group programs to assisting in our Health Bar. To volunteer, visit our website and complete the volunteer application.

In what other ways can community members support GiGi’s Playhouse—be it through monetary donations, material donations, education, etc.? Do you have an itemized wish list of any kind or utilize options like AmazonSmile to raise funds?

GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne is 100% funded by the generosity of our community. GiGi’s does not receive any state or federal funding. Community members can donate to GiGi’s by visiting our website. All proceeds support our free, purposeful programs. We also accept donations of office supplies, gift cards for our cooking club and more. We also encourage the community to take the Generation G Pledge, where you pledge to be generous, be kind and be accepting.

Where can our readers learn more about GiGi’s Playhouse and how can they reach out to you to learn more or get involved?

Readers can learn more about GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne here or come in to the Health Bar to see us!

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about GiGi’s Playhouse?

We hope you will come out to see us and grab a smoothie at our Health Bar!

For more information about GiGi's Playhouse, check out their website and visit them on Facebook!

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