'A dream that finally came true': GiGi's Playhouse a place of inclusion, support
FARGO—Eight-year-old Jake wrapped his 7-year-old friend Birk in a hug as soon as Birk walked in the door.
Their growing friendship is one of the main reasons parents say they wanted a place like GiGi's Playhouse in town.
GiGi's Playhouse is an achievement center for children and adults with Down syndrome. It gives them and their families a place they can go to feel welcomed and included. It's also a place where new parents can learn about what it really means to have a child with Down syndrome.
"Social media is not necessarily a good thing," said Kristin Peters of Fargo, Jake's mom. "You can look up everything that could be wrong with your children."
When Kristin Nelsen of Fargo found out her son Birk had Down syndrome, she said she felt alone.
Having a place like GiGi's Playhouse would have shown her the possibilities for kids with Down syndrome, how happy they can be, and it would have given her a place to connect with other parents to talk about things like development, which tends to lag behind other kids, she said.
"With a child with Down syndrome, they're all on their own unique journey," Nelsen said. "Having GiGi's is just this instant support."
Peters said Jake didn't walk until he was 2½ years old. Knowing that's all right and her child isn't alone is a relief for parents, she said.
GiGi's Playhouse is a national organization that offers free educational and therapeutic programs for children and adults with Down syndrome. It's also a place to raise positive awareness about the disorder.
A couple weeks ago, a couple who had just found out they were going to have a baby with Down syndrome stopped by the Fargo playhouse. Tahnee Ruud, GiGi's Playhouse site coordinator, said they were in tears at their child's diagnosis when they arrived, but were smiling and filled with hope when they left.
"That's what it's truly all about," she said.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that causes lifelong intellectual disability and developmental delays, according to Mayo Clinic. It varies in severity and is the most common cause of learning disabilities in children.
It's also the most common genetic condition, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome, and about 6,000 babies are born with it in the United States each year.
"There's a stigma attached with Down syndrome, not always seeing what they can do and maybe focusing on what they can't do," Nelsen said. "(GiGi's) is a place where families can come and just be themselves. There's not the stigma."
A recent session at GiGi's started with a welcome song, followed by story time and the chance to play with a parachute.
The kids and their parents lifted the parachute as high as they could before bringing it down again. Sometimes they shook it while trying to keep a stuffed animal from falling off. At another point, the children ran under the parachute to find a designated color when the group leader called their names.
Parent involvement is important, Nelsen said, so they can learn ways to work on their kids' development at home. Parents or caretakers are required to accompany children under age 18.
Games like the parachute are fun for the kids. They were laughing and smiling the whole time. But games also help develop a variety of skills, Nelsen said. The kids use gross motor skills to lift and lower the parachute and run underneath it. They use fine motor skills to grip the parachute straps. It teaches social skills like taking turns and encouraging each other. And it helps them learn to name colors and work on concepts like below and above.
Shelly Petersen of Moorhead has a 4-year-old son with Down syndrome. She's been bringing Owen to GiGi's since it opened in September.
"It's a great place for socialization," she said. "It's great for me to be able to visit with other parents who are going down the same path we are."
GiGi's is not just for young kids. Friday night activities for teenagers and young adults are also popular. Nelsen said there are plenty of programing options available in the community for young children, but as the kids get older, there isn't as much available for them to do.
That's also the time when friends might start to pull away, she said. Kids are very inclusive in elementary school, but around middle and high school, intellectual and developmental differences might cause more of a separation.
Nelsen said she hopes GiGi's helps fill that gap by providing a place where teens and young adults with Down syndrome can feel welcome and included and can have fun spending time with their peers.
"For teens, the huge thing is socialization and learning how to communicate and interact with their peers," she said.
Nationally, GiGi's Playhouse has more than 30 programs that involve things like motor skills, speech therapy and reading and literacy skills and are focused on how kids with Down syndrome learn. All playhouses do not offer every program. Organizers at the Fargo location hope to add literacy tutoring in mid-winter or spring.
GiGi's Playhouse in Fargo is funded through grants, donations and an annual "Buddy Walk" fundraiser. Parents started holding the fundraisers in October 2013 to help bring a GiGi's Playhouse to Fargo.
"It's a dream of all of ours that finally came true," Petersen said. "It's going to be a place for our kiddos to grow up and be a community with their peers."
The Playhouse is a nonprofit organization run by a board. It relies heavily on volunteers and has one paid position.
"There's been an overwhelming amount of community support," said Nelsen, board president. "It's been amazing."