Q&A with Nancy Gianni, Founder of GiGi’s Playhouse

When Nancy Gianni’s daughter GiGi was born with Down syndrome in 2004, Nancy was scared – if for no other reason than the looks on her doctors’ faces. As she put it more than a decade later, “They went from congratulations to condolences.”

Changing the public’s attitude about Down syndrome – and providing a safe space for GiGi, her two siblings and other families – spurred Gianni to found GiGi’s Playhouse 12 years ago. The nonprofit organization, based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., now has 31 locations in North America. Gianni has recently been featured on The Steve Harvey Show and was named a CNN Hero earlier this year.

Greentarget works with GiGi’s Playhouse to help promote awareness and community acceptance. We recently spoke with Gianni about the organization and what lies ahead.

We’ve read about the history of your organization, but in your own words, could you explain how and why you founded GiGi’s Playhouse?

Nancy Gianni: I didn’t know GiGi was going to have Down syndrome, and after she was born, I was surprised by the negativity I encountered – even from the nurses and doctors. They looked more petrified than I was. It was difficult, and it’s only natural in that moment to wonder what your life will be like going forward.

But once we got GiGi home, she was just like any other baby. I realized that the negativity I encountered could stay with most parents for years – and it doesn’t give that child the right start in the world. I wanted to help these families and give them the extra push, the empowerment they need.

How does GiGi’s Playhouse differ from other organizations? What need do you think you ended up filling?

NG: Providing free programming, which we have done from the start, is a huge point. Another is the belief and empowerment for these families to know that they have a place in this world – a physical place. It’s not just a safe place for the individuals with Down syndrome. It’s a place where the community can help and volunteer – we had a church choir using one of our spaces recently. It’s amazing how many people come to one of our locations and leave as advocates. It has this energizing feeling.

What we provide is a place for the community to come in and learn about acceptance. We work hard not to place limitations on people and we work to build independence every single day. It’s about growing the whole individual into their full potential.

You’ve grown to more than 30 locations. How long did it take you to find the formula?

NG: We had some growing pains along the way – mostly because the first few expansions didn’t really have a model to follow. We rolled that model out for our fifth location and probably had it perfected around number eight, when we had a licensing agreement and parameters for the new locations. It might slow down growth, but that’s OK. It’s become much more sustainable. Our network really understands the value of doing things the GiGi’s way.

Do you have additional growth plans?

NG: We want to be in every major metro market by 2021. We’re also working hard to expand our mobile program, where we can help serve more rural communities or underserved parts of some cities. We’re working on getting seed money for these efforts in 2017. We also just received a $1 million grant from the Northwestern University Dance Marathon, which can help us get into more of the mobile programming – even if it’s just a mobile cart that can go to areas without locations.

I’m also hoping to increase our Hispanic outreach. Our location in Mexico is amazingly popular – people will take buses for three hours to get there – so we’d like to expand on that. Within the U.S., I recently met a family at our Des Moines, Iowa, location, and they said they just feel so alone. I think we can do a lot of good there.

What are some memories that stick out to you from the past 12 years?

NG: In the beginning, I remember regularly thinking that I just couldn’t do this. But there was always something that would pull me back in. A few weeks ago we had GiGi Fest, and there were two 4-year-olds. They’re rambunctious boys, just like any kids their age, and they had to wait on a red carpet during speeches by the mayor and others before a calendar walk that we had for the event. The boys were so well-behaved – they just stood there, patiently, for 15 minutes! I kept watching them, and I was so proud. I was blown away. There were no adults around to keep them in line. They just did it.

Going back a few years, there was a girl named Nicole who was part of GiGi University, which is a goal-oriented program that has participants keep a food journal and work out three days a week, among other things. Nicole came in one day to fill out her application, and she never smiled. I thought maybe she had low muscle tone in her face. She also couldn’t write. We helped her through it, and she came back later having been writing in her journal, focusing on one sentence a day.

Now, she has a boyfriend she talks to on the phone in Florida – and she smiles all the time. She’d had a rough time as a teenager with bullying, but now her life has changed. What happened with Nicole is the kind of thing that keeps me going – that keeps all of us going.

To learn more, please visit GiGi’s Playhouse’s website.