The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, November 28, 2017 1:00 am

Finding their purpose

GiGi's Playhouse helps people with Down syndrome

Angela Sartiano | For The Journal Gazette

Everyone deserves a chance to be accepted and loved. It is that reasoning that started GiGi's Playhouse nationally back in 2003.

However, it was the love of a granddaughter that got a GiGi's Playhouse to open in Fort Wayne in 2016.

GiGi's Playhouse is an achievement center for people with Down syndrome, their families and the community. It offers therapeutic and educational programs – all of which are free. The programs are developed by professional therapists and teachers who donate their time and expertise.

The center is supported by donations, grants and volunteers. 

“You can still receive support and resources that are so necessary for you and your child to succeed. It doesn't matter who you are or what background you come from, you can still get that support in a judge-free environment, and it's so beautiful that we offer that,” says Holly Tonak, executive director of the local GiGi's.

The Fort Wayne location is one of 33 in the nation. It got its start after Doug and Cindy Atkinson learned of GiGi's Playhouse and wanted one in Fort Wayne for their granddaughter, Charlotte, who was born with Down syndrome, according to the website.

The couple had just retired and were able to put their energy and talents into bringing the center here. The couple created a callout on Facebook to generate support to open the center.

Doug Atkinson is now GiGi's president and Cindy is the events and fundraiser coordinator.

“Our purpose is to give them purpose,” Doug Atkinson says. “To give them every opportunity that is given to all children and adults. To measure their success by purposeful progression, not predetermined metrics. To give them the proper tools to allow them to grow and excel.”

GiGi's Playhouse offers a number of programs for all ages. There is LMNOP, which is an enrichment program that helps children with sign language, as well as Busy Bodies, in which an occupational therapist assists with fine and gross motor skills for ages 3 and younger.

GiGi's also offers etiquette classes for both boys and girls.

“Men with Manners is teaching our young men to be chivalrous and delightful human beings,” Tonak says. “We have a Girls with Grace program, teaching them how to have confidence and advocate for themselves in an appropriate manner, along with how to socialize in an appropriate manner.”

There are art, cheerleading and twirling programs, as well as a cooking club. There also is GiGi University, which provides learning programs designed to help adults with Down syndrome in work skills and community engagement.

Following GiGi University, the agency provides skills training in its on-site retail store, GiGi's Studio Boutique, positioning participants for potential employment opportunities, Doug Atkinson says. “These adult programs will be expanding in the near future with upcoming partnerships with Ivy Tech and Cookspring at The Summit.”

The retail store offers Gigi's branded merchandise such as mugs, water bottles and decorative frames. In addition, Atkinson says the store has received new arrivals. “We are now in the process of adding merchandise from two new sources,” he says. “First, we are working with Cookspring at The Summit to develop a line of holiday treats, all prepared, baked and packaged by our adults in their commercial kitchen. You will find holiday cookies, snack mix, peppermint bars, caramels on our shelves in the next two weeks.

“Secondly, we are reaching out to other national businesses owned and operated by individuals with Down syndrome to include their products in our store. So far, we have lined up Sweet Heat Jams, Group Hug Apparel, da Bombs bath gels and bombs, with more partnerships in the process.”

But he says the most important part of the store is providing adults with employable skills.

“They perform nearly every function in our store. When they aren't creating the designs or actually performing the heat press sublimation process, they are our customer service contact; they ring up the sale, they package the goods, they keep the store organized. This is the primary goal of the retail store, to give the adults a purpose, to integrate them into the business environment and to train them to go out and utilize those skills in other opportunities,” Atkinson says.

Bethany Jewell, 26, graduated from GiGi University last year. Jewell and her mother, Jennifer, assist in the doggie store at the center. Jewell helps her mother create accessories and bake dog biscuits.

When asked what her favorite thing is to bake, Jewell simply replied, “Food!”

“She loves making cupcakes,” Jennifer Jewell says.

Since Bethany has been at GiGi's, Jennifer says her daughter has gained more confidence in her social skills. “Just getting involved here, and getting involved with friends, there's a lot to do here.”

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