Life skills, love shared at GiGi’s

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE   |   Times
Gigi\u2019s Playhouse Tampa opens this week, a Downs Syndrome Achievement Center offering 40 therapeutic-based language, math, motor and social programs for all ages, even mothers with a prenatal diagnosis, delivered by volunteers for no charge.\uFEFF
SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times Gigi\u2019s Playhouse Tampa opens this week, a Downs Syndrome Achievement Center offering 40 therapeutic-based language, math, motor and social programs for all ages, even mothers with a prenatal diagnosis, delivered by volunteers for no charge.\uFEFF
Published August 13
Updated August 15

TAMPA ó Learning, life skills and love are offered unconditionally at GiGiís Playhouse Tampa, a Down syndrome achievement center opening Saturday.

Specially-designed therapeutic, educational and career development programs are provided for all ages, all in one place, by a team of trained volunteers.

And hereís the best news: Itís all free.

Community partners and donors sustain the non-profit facility located in the Greenhouse Shoppes at the intersection of Hillsborough and Himes avenues.

"Thereís one paid site coordinator and the rest is run by volunteers," said Christopher Steele, board president, one of a group of impassioned parents who have worked since early 2016 to meet the requirements to open the third GiGiís Playhouse in Florida, the 38th national affiliate location.

"Itís not a day care or a preschool," Steele said. "Parents accompany them. While my son is hitting math therapy, I may tutor or read to another child or cook with some adults."

Eventually, there will be more than 30 programs for newborns to adults with Down syndrome, their family members and caregivers. Numerous organizations, such as Special Olympics Florida, will deliver some of their programs on site as well.

The five initial offerings range from "LMNOP," language and movement sessions for infants up to 3 or 4 years old to the Advocacy and Inspiration Team for ages 18 and up to design their own independent living curriculum, such as cooking skills, and become role models for the younger kids.

Also Special Olympics Young Athletes, teaching sports, following directions, taking turns and more for ages 2 1/2 to 7.

"The calendar will start small and expand on a monthly basis as we grow," said Nicki Rawlings, outreach team leader, "based on availability of volunteers, including speech, occupational and physical therapists."

The 3,700-square-foot center has a gym, a stage, a break room to learn basic culinary skills, two math and literacy tutoring labs and an adult area for career development.

Elle Rawlings, 5, who participated in GiGiís Playhouse program in Utah, couldnít be more excited, said her mother, readying for the opening festivities.

"Sheís been running around testing everything, the climbing gym and obstacle course, the wall of mirrors... sheís entertained herself for hours."

There are more than 450,000 individuals with Down syndrome in the United States, more than 3,400 live in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

"One in 700 children are diagnosed with Down syndrome and it is the least funded chromosonal disability," said Steele, adding his seven-year-old son Tommy canít wait "to have a place he can call his own with other children like him and grow and become his "best of all."

Nancy Gianni founded GiGiís Playhouse named for her daughter in Illinois in 2003 to change the way the world views Down syndrome. She and GiGi, now 16, will attend the ribbon cutting this weekend.

"Itís the dream of a brick and mortar location to come together as a community, to pass referrals, create friendships and share resources," Rawlings said.

Contact Amy Scherzer at [email protected]

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