Gainesville children with Down syndrome will soon be getting their own special place to express themselves and have fun with their families.
On Oct. 11, GiGi’s Playhouse, an achievement and awareness center for individuals with Down syndrome, will be opening its Gainesville location at 3345 SW 34th St.
The grand opening, which will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., has been in the works for about two years by a group of mothers with children who have Down syndrome.
GiGi’s Playhouse is headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and it has more than 24 locations throughout the U.S. and Mexico with more opening soon, according to its website.
Gainesville will be the 26th location to open.
Lilly Bell, the vice president of GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, said she is really excited and honored to be a part of the first location in Florida.
Up to this point, the center’s members and volunteers have been working out of their homes to focus on awareness and fundraising in the community.
“Now that we have an actual location, that’s where we’re going to be able to provide the delivery of the free programs,” Bell said.
GiGi’s Playhouse provides educational and therapeutic programs at no charge to families. There are different programs for different age groups (infants to young adults) that are all geared toward the way individuals with Down syndrome learn, Bell said.
The programs are free to the families that come use the service, but they are not free for the board members. They still have to pay for rent, resources and other expenses.
“We rely tremendously on the generosity of the community, our friends and family, and of course our volunteers,” Bell said. “It’s important for us to be sustainable.”
Bell, who has a 4-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, said they do many fundraising events during the year including past events with Domino’s Pizza, Inc. and Zaxby’s.
“There’s always something to do,” she said. “We’re constantly raising money so that we can make sure that we open and keep our doors open.”
Mika Vuto, the president of GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, decided she wanted to find a group of moms who really saw the need for a place like GiGi’s in the community. Bell said since then they have continued to grow, doing more fundraising and getting more people involved.
Addie Dalton, who is mother to 2-year-old Adleigh and works with GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, decided to get involved with the program a few months after her daughter was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome.
“For a person who doesn’t really know a lot about Down syndrome, it’s kind of overwhelming at first,” she said. “I want to be there for that support; when that scared mom is just looking for resources of any kind.”
Bell said there’s no database with the number of individuals with Down syndrome in the U.S., but she estimated about 5,500 people located within a 100-mile radius of GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville have it.
“We fully expect that families would travel up to an hour and a half a week to come to our location,” Bell said.
She said an important part of the project is being able to provide support for the families, so they don’t feel alone and scared.
“We want to be a tremendous source of support for them and say, ‘Hey, you’re not alone. It’s not as bad as you think it is. It’s a different journey, but it’s an incredible journey,’” she said.
Dalton said she can’t wait to see how GiGi’s Playhouse benefits the Gainesville community and its families. She also said she hopes that its work will be able to change stereotypes.
“People tend to see (people with Down syndrome) as a diagnosis,” Dalton said. “My daughter is not Down syndrome; she’s Adleigh. She’s a person.”