Girl with Down Syndrome Drawing

GiGi's Playhouse is one of the most incredible non-profits out there for kids with Down Syndrome, and since World Down Syndrome Day (March 21) is coming up, I thought I'd take a moment and celebrate this organization because it's touching so many lives in positive ways.

Nancy Gianni, the mom of a girl (Gigi) with DS, started a Playhouse in 2003 to "show the world that kids with Down Syndrome were much more than their diagnosis." Now there are Playhouse centers for children and adults with Down Syndrome across the U.S. that "provide educational and therapeutic programs ... to maximize confidence and empower individuals to reach their greatest potential."

There's so much I love about this mission and—unlike the majority of other programs and services I've encountered while parenting my child with autism—IT'S FREE!

That's right. Going to the Playhouse and participating in the many programs is totally free because GiGi's operates through fundraising and relies on volunteers. My friend, Sarah Koehn, helped bring a GiGi's to Milwaukee (it opens this Saturday on World DS Day!) and she walked me through a typical Playhouse space.

Each playhouse has several important areas: a couch, where parents can talk with each other and build community; a stage where kids can practice singing and other activities to build their confidence; a quiet nook for reading; a tutoring area, where volunteers do one-on-one literacy and math tutoring (using a method that has proven best for teaching kids with Down Syndrome); a play area where kids can play together and work on motor skills; and, many Playhouses include a kitchen for teaching cooking and other life skills.

Beyond the physical and social space GiGi's offers, it also hosts a tremendous range of programs. There are family dinners, Special Olympics, and classes around gross motor skills for preschoolers, art and handwriting, cheering, and karate (check out for more program details).

What most parents find, however, is that the benefits of GiGi's go beyond just having excellent programming and a welcoming space. As my friend Sarah says, "GiGi's has given me invaluable support since my daughter Daphne's birth. I appreciate knowing that there is a community of people who I will see on a regular basis who can answer my questions and give me advice through every stage of Daphne's life. That is the kind of fellowship that no doctor, teacher, or therapist can provide."

Many other parents echo this sentiment. As one parent said in a recent GiGi's newsletter, "In the summer we are there just about every week for LMNOP class and Open Play. We started going to LMNOP [Language, Music, N' Our Peeps] when Madylin was only a few months old and we loved it! We learned songs, finger plays, and sign language; we danced and read stories. Madylin has always loved music and she loves that class ... So grateful for that place!"

Want to know if there a Gigi's Playhouse in your area? In 2015, there will be 30+ GiGi's throughout the country. But if you don't see your city on the map, you can still learn more about how to bring a Playhouse to your area.

GiGi's Playhouse is such an inspiring place for kids to learn, grow, and thrive. I deeply wish there was an equivalent organization for kids and families with autism, so I could take my son there to help him socialize, grow his confidence, and learn both academics and life skills for free in a loving, supporting atmosphere. Maybe someday such a place will exist for kids with autism, but in the meantime, I cheer in enthusiastic support for GiGi's and I encourage all of you to visit your local Playhouse to learn more, volunteer, or maybe just get to know some new friends.

Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton

Image: Girl with Down Syndrome Drawing via Shutterstock