It was the summer of 2003, a year since Nancy Gianni gave birth to her beautiful baby girl, Gigi. At first, Gianni felt lost when she realized she did not have any place to go that would support Gigi’s special gift: Down syndrome. Gianni then learned what she had to do. It was time for her to change perceptions and not only prepare her children for the world around them but prepare the world for Gigi, too!
Down syndrome is a genetic condition where a person is born with an extra copy of chromosome 21. Each year, about 6,000 babies (1 in 700) born in the United States have Down syndrome.
It can be difficult in Louisiana, and especially in New Orleans, to find special needs resources to assist your growing family. In 2020, Gigi’s Playhouse opened its New Orleans location amid the pandemic as a resource center and a safe place where adults, kids, and families can get together to learn about Down syndrome.
Annie Watkins, site manager of Gigi’s Playhouse New Orleans, goes above and beyond maintaining the facility, managing its various programs and outreach initiatives, and overseeing volunteer work. She often welcomes new friends to the playhouse with open arms and invites everyone to be a part of their family.
“I listen to a lot of the stories from parents, and there’s no congratulations,” says Watkins. “It’s just like, ‘Oh here, I’m sorry!’ Everyone’s apologizing. And that’s just absolutely not what this is about. The first thing we tell all families is ‘Congratulations!’”
Watkins and her fellow volunteers recognize the importance of inclusivity and education for all, which makes programming within the Playhouse so important. To help drive acceptance and change the world’s view on Down syndrome, it all starts with our infants.
From infants to school-age, Gigi’s Playhouse implements social interaction through music and sign language. They learn what every other typical toddler learns at this age: communication, independence, manners, and how to share.
A great thing about these classes, according to Watkins, is the volunteers. The Playhouse is completely volunteer-run, meaning that people from across the city and state get to help out, and volunteers with Down syndrome also get to help with the younger classes.
“One parent told me that she absolutely loved coming into the Playhouse when we had an adult with Down syndrome volunteering in the baby class,” Watkins says. “She could see that her baby was going to have a future. She could see that [this volunteer] comes here, and he plays with the babies, and he helps with the programs, and it’s all going to be okay.”
Children can also begin tutoring at the Playhouse to improve important skills like literacy and math. Then they’re able to truly start exploring other significant growth activities like fitness, cooking, and nutrition classes.
In Gigi’s Kitchen, kids and teens practice step-by-step routines on how to prepare healthy snacks, kitchen safety practices, and anything that supports independence. The Teen Tastic program is designed to expand on socialization and problem-solving skills.
The teens at the Playhouse are just like regular teenagers, says Watkins. All they want to do is get dropped off and hang out with their friends.
Gigi’s Adult classes typically do the same activities. They even have a program coming up called Achievers, which will focus on empowering adults through purposeful activities, like independence and communication.
“Whatever each person’s goal is, hopefully, we can help them get there through some of these programs,” says Watkins.
At the end of the day, that is their main mission: to drive acceptance and be a community resource that’s there for not only individuals with Down syndrome but for their family and friends too. That’s what Gigi’s Playhouse is all about. Members know the Playhouse is a safe space for all, designed specifically for them and their needs.
“There’s really no way to measure it, but I guarantee that there are huge impacts happening here at this place,” says Watkins. “There’s miracles happening, and it’s really fun to celebrate them.”
It’s important to have a community that supports you, shares information, and builds off each other. Gigi’s Playhouse New Orleans runs 100 percent on donations, grants, and sponsorships, as well as being led by only Watkins and her volunteers. As Gigi’s Playhouse approaches 20 years of operation, it’s eager to expand its reach beyond the 58 playhouses across the United States and Mexico. They’re always happy to welcome new team members and volunteers, as well as anyone who wants to inquire about starting a Playhouse near them.
Miracles really do happen here at Gigi’s Playhouse New Orleans, so it’s important to continue to support their mission of providing courage and acceptance to such a key part of the New Orleans community.
For more information on volunteering, how to get involved, or how you can support Gigi’s Playhouse New Orleans, visit their website or call (504) 321-6770.