SPECIAL FEATURE: GiGi’s Playhouse
JENNA SCHIFFERLE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY KANE
Ally Donofrio learned the importance of patience when her daughter Addison was diagnosed with Down syndrome. She wasn’t expecting the news and part of her was scared of what the chromosomal condition entailed. What would having Down syndrome mean for Addison’s future? What kind of help would Addison need? What kind of changes would her family have to make? “I want the best for her and I want the best for every child with Down syndrome,” Ally said.
The journey hasn’t been easy. At the age of four months, Addison had to undergo open-heart surgery. Ally had to wait patiently as her daughter came through the operation, her maternal side overwhelmed and worried. Addison pulled through, though the operation ultimately delayed her speech. Watching her little girl today, Ally has realized that despite this and other delays, Addison is just like every other child.
“Addison is going to do everything my son Eric is doing, just on a different timeline,” she said. That is the only difference between her and other children. Some people don’t realize this, and there is often a stigma attached to Down syndrome. Many times, people who haven’t had first-hand experience with the condition don’t know how to react to those who have it. It is for that reason that Ally sought a way to promote awareness about Down syndrome and to stimulate Addison’s learning.
As a fitness buff, Ally originally envisioned a fitness center that would be available for people of all ages, including children with Down syndrome. By doing a little research, Ally came across GiGi’s Playhouse, a center for children with Down syndrome. The original playhouse was started in a suburb of Chicago by a mother named Nancy Gianni, whose daughter has Down syndrome. The more Ally learned about the organization, the more she fell in love. Ally wanted to start a center where all age groups could go for their needs. GiGi’s Playhouse was perfect.
Ally sought support, formed a board and began fundraising. All of the board members took pictures of their children who had Down syndrome and mailed out the pictures to family members explaining their goals of starting a GiGi’s Playhouse in Central New York. They raised about $15,000 right off the bat and continued fundraising. In January of 2012, they held their first board meeting. After more than 10 months of hard work, GiGi’s Playhouse recently opened in Drivers Village in Cicero.
Ally said the playhouse aims to provide support for children with Down syndrome and their families, increase awareness of Down syndrome and help all children reach the important milestones in their lives. Services provided by the playhouse include one-on-one tutoring, educational programs in literacy, phonics, handwriting, math and skill building, prenatal support and social skill development. All services are free of charge for families.
Programs like “One Million Voices” and “I have a Voice” seek to change “outdated perceptions and replace those images with beautiful, thought-provoking, intelligent images,” according to their website, www.gigisplayhouse.org/syracuse. The playhouse brings children with Down syndrome together and unites families who share similar stories.
Ally is excited for the future of GiGi’s Playhouse and sees a great deal of potential for growth, including the addition of a kitchen for cooking classes. She hopes to increase awareness about Down syndrome and create a more positive world for her daughter.
“Just because our kids wear their condition on their face doesn’t make them any different from other kids,” she said. “Give your child time to develop. You just have to realize that it will be at a different pace.”