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LAYTON — On Feb. 7, a group of Utah mothers is launching a local branch of GiGi’s Playhouse, a facility that offers free programs and family support for individuals with Down syndrome.
GiGi’s Playhouse started in Chicago when the founder, Nancy Gianni, promised her daughter, GiGi, she would change the way the world looked at people with Down syndrome, according to GiGi’s Playhouse.
Annette Christensen, vice president of the Layton GiGi’s Playhouse, first heard of the organization on YouTube and immediately wanted to start a facility in Utah to help her 11-year-old daughter, Katy, who has Down syndrome, in addition to other children. When she inquired about starting the facility, however, she was told they were putting new centers on hold.
“Utah has more Down syndrome individuals per capita than any other state, and yet we have the least amount of programs or services for children and families with Down syndrome,” Christensen said.
A couple of years later, Christensen was introduced to a woman who also has a child with Down syndrome, and the woman asked Christensen if she had ever heard of GiGi’s Playhouse. She then told Christensen she and a group of moms were starting the organization locally, so Christensen willingly became involved.
“We’re going to be the fastest GiGi’s Playhouse to open,” Christensen said. “Most places take a couple of years because it’s all done on volunteers and fundraising and grants. You have to have $100,000 raised before you open your center, and there’s 10 of us ladies that have done that in the last 11 months.”
Utah has more Down syndrome individuals per capita than any other state and yet we have the least amount of programs or services for children and families with Down syndrome.
–Annette Christensen, Vice President, GiGi's Playhouse Layton
The facility will offer 11 programs, including fitness, art and cooking classes, literacy and math tutoring and play groups categorized by age. Entire families are invited to come to the playhouse every Friday night to socialize with other families while using the facilities’ games, air hockey table, ping pong table, karaoke machine and more.
“It’ll be a place of total inclusion,” Christensen said.
GiGi’s Playhouse will be open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. If those hours don’t work for some families, however, they can coordinate a better time with the site coordinator, who will send a volunteer to work with them, Christensen said.
“What’s nice about it is it’s very individualized,” Christensen said. “So if one family can only do [a class] Thursdays at 8, the volunteer works with them. It’s there for use whenever people need it.”
To volunteer, visit the website and sign up for the GiGi’s Playhouse newsletter. Each volunteer needs to complete a required 45-minutes training, Christensen said.
GiGi’s Playhouse will host a grand opening event Feb. 7 at 10 a.m. Nancy and GiGi Gianni will attend the event, and some of the older kids with Down syndrome will give a speech, including Christensen’s daughter, Katy.
“I am absolutely thrilled that Katy can receive more services and more specific help with things that will help her progress in her life,” Christensen said. “[The program offers] individualized education that is just not available in the school.”