GiGi's Playhouse

Hugs and Mugs Gift Shop and Café (Photo courtesy of GiGi's Playhouse.)

Walking into GiGi’s Playhouse you are immediately met with a wave of smiles, giggles and most of all, an exuberant energy.

Such a spirited atmosphere, however, stands in stark contrast to the sterile room Nancy Gianni first attended following her daughter’s Down syndrome diagnosis.

“There were great support groups but they always took place in an extra room in the hospital, in the church,” recalls Gianni. “I thought to myself, ‘Why does it always have to be in some extra room; why can’t there be a place for us?’”

Seeking a medium where these resources and support could blend with a hopeful and positive outlook, Gianni founded GiGi’s Playhouse, 4th Annual Philanthropy Awards winner in the Human Services – Empowerment category, in 2003.

“I imagined a place where all you felt was belief and celebration, all you saw was accomplishment. It wasn’t going to be scary.”

At GiGi’s Playhouse, children and adults of all ages have access to a variety of educational and therapeutic programs at no cost to families. Combining learning with fun activities, GiGi’s Playhouse programs are dedicated to developing speech-language, social and motor skills.

Not only do the programs serve children and adults diagnosed with Down syndrome but they also provide a network of support for parents and families. Both staff and volunteers are there to help parents encourage high expectations for their child to succeed in social, educational and employment opportunities in the future.

For adults, GiGi’s Playhouse offers an opportunity to join a unique educational program, GiGi University (GiGi U). Innovative and goal-oriented, GiGi U provides a 12-week curriculum that focuses on development of confidence, health and wellness, career skills and interests. Once completed, students move on to complete an 18-week internship hosted by GiGi’s Playhouse’s own Hugs and Mugs Gift Shop and Café.

Accounting for more than 100,000 hours each year, volunteers are central to the operation of GiGi’s. From therapists to educators, GiGi’s trains all volunteers in-house, providing them with the tools to create a hands-on experience.

“When a family is so blindsided by a diagnosis, it can be scary to open the door for the first time,” says Gianni. “You’re never going to be alone. From the moment your baby is born, we’re here.”

GiGi’s Playhouse By the Numbers:

  • 100,000 volunteer hours each year
  • 46,000 free program sessions serving those with Down syndrome
  • 30 locations across the U.S. and Mexico
  • A $5 contribution would provide one personalized word strip or one Nuk brush

Award Sponsor: Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Foundation in honor of pathways.org


This article is part of our 4th Annual Philanthropy Awards series. Find more of our winners here: