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Gigi's Playhouse Opens, Offering Free Resources For Kids With Down Syndrome

Quincy J. Walters
Kids play in a small ball pit at Gigi's Playhouse during the grand opening.

Each year 280 children in Florida are born with Down syndrome, according to the Florida Department of Health. Those children’s families often have to spend extra money for treatment. But a facility has opened up in Fort Myers that will provide extra treatment for free.  

Gigi’s Playhouse is a nonprofit that provides classes and activities for kids with Down syndrome and their families. It’s funded with donations.

During a recent grand opening, founder Nancy Gianni said the biggest rival children with Down Syndrome face is intolerance.

“A learned intolerance that’s brought on by designer babies in countries like Denmark, who’ve stated they want to eradicate Down syndrome--simply not allow babies with down syndrome to be born," she said, talking into a microphone.

Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson held a book called "Up Syndrome: It’s All About the Attitude".

“Every mayor wants this going on in their city," the mayor said before cutting the ribbon. "Let’s cut this ribbon and God bless you all for helping!”

Nancy Gianni calls herself the Chief Believe Officer of Gigi’s Playhouse. It’s named for her daughter—Gigi Gianni.

“Down syndrome is a lifelong diagnosis. These families deal with this every single day of their life. We just want to make life easier. We wanna give the kids a step up. We want them to start school where there peers are and we just want to help them every step of the way of this journey," said Gianni. "We’re just here to show the world all of the potential they have and what they can do.”

When asked what she likes best about Gigi's Playhouse, Gigi said she likes interacting with the younger kids.

"I have to hold babies here a lot," Gigi said. 

"Yeah. She loves to hold the babies," Nancy said. 

Gigi said she wants to be a teacher. Nancy said when she first learned her daughter was going to be born with Down syndrome, she didn’t know what to do.

“Oh gosh. What I was thinking was panic, fear. I knew I would to be able to take care of her, but I was more afraid for my other kids and the life they were gonna live because of this," said Nancy Gianni. "You wear Down syndrome on your face; everyone knows the minute they see you. I’m never going to forget being blind-sided with that diagnosis and that fear.”

And that’s why Nancy Gianni said she decided to create Gigi’s Playhouse, initially in Chicago—to provide support for families of kids with Down syndrome and a place where they could get extra attention free of charge. The Fort Myers location is the 33rd playhouse to open in the U.S.

The day of the ribbon cutting is also the day Gigi turned 14.

Summer Paneque was there with her three-year-old son Rocko. She said they live on Florida's east coast, but this Gigi’s Playhouse is closer to them than the one in Gainesville.

“I have family over here, so anytime that I come visit, I will definitely be coming to the classes and the activities and the events Gigi has," Paneque said. "Absolutely.”

Clari Zeledon is here with her two-year-old Alejandra.

“I feel  wonderful, because for the last three years I know about Gigi’s in Chicago and we never had anything in Florida," Zeledon said. "So, we are so happy and blessed.”

During the ribbon cutting, Olaf—a snowman from the 2013 Disney movie “Frozen” made an appearance. And the song “Let it Go” from the movie played and Gigi sang along.

Gigi’s Playhouse officially opened this weekend, allowing kids and their families to let go of whatever difficulty and intolerance they may face.

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.