GiGi's Playhouse on track to open this summer in new facility
The community rallied around the nonprofit after the original GiGi's Playhouse was destroyed by fire May 11, 2021. They've completed phase one of their four-phase capital fundraising campaign, which was to rebuild and reopen. Phases two through four involve expanding or adding programs.
FARGO — Executive Director Heather Lorenzen was on hand when a fire broke out in the strip mall home to GiGi's Playhouse the afternoon of May 11, 2021.
"It was devastating. In a matter of 10 minutes we watched everything we worked hard for for 5 1/2 years and our community's dollars go up in flames," she recalled.
GiGi's Playhouse is an achievement center for people with Down Syndrome. Its programs are funded by grants, donations and annual fundraisers, and its staff is 99% volunteer-driven.
She remembers feeling thankful that day no one was hurt.
"I am blessed no one in our building was injured and we all made it out safely," she said.
And as she drove home that evening, she recalls feeling hopeful.
"I knew leaving that our community — I get goosebumps when I talk about it — that our community was going to get together to help us rebuild," she said.
Following the fire, GiGi's launched a four-phase capital fundraising campaign.
The organization has already completed phase one, which was to rebuild and reopen. GiGi's recently wrapped up its spring session at a temporary site on Main Avenue in Fargo. They expect to reopen this summer in their newly-rebuilt facility at 3224 20th St. S.
Phases two through four involve expanding or adding programs.
"Yes, the fire was tragic. We lost everything. But it did give us time to wish and dream," she said.
Phase two will cover expanding and furnishing GiGi's gym and bringing in the Amina Grace Speech Program . Phase three involves establishing a teen and adult career training center, and they hope to establish satellite locations with funds raised from phase four.
Thanks to the generosity of donors and a matching grant from the Engelstad Foundation , GiGi's is well on its way to meeting their goals.
Flourishing through the fire
Lorenzen says she can't thank the community enough for their support.
"I knew we would just be wrapped up in our community's arms and taking tragedy and turning it and flourishing through the flames," she said. "I'm so proud to live in the Fargo-Moorhead area."
To illustrate, GiGi's Playhouse was recently recognized for being one of the charities with the largest percentage growth in new individual donors on Giving Hearts Day in 2022.
"In 2021, we had approximately 396 donors who donated that day to our mission. This year we had 712," Lorenzen said. "It was remarkable because it wasn't the large gifts that really helped. It was those $20-25 gifts."
Lorenzen explained that it costs about $27/hour per family to run a program at GiGi's Playhouse.
"It's amazing because that's so many more free hours that we can provide," she said.
Many have been moved to help because of a personal connection to Down Syndrome.
Such was the case for Paula Klein, owner of Smartt Interior Construction in Fargo . Klein is a longtime friend of Kellie Hamre, board president of GiGi's Playhouse.
Hamre approached Klein about bidding the rebuild project.
Smartt Interior Construction is a certified DIRTT contractor that specializes in prefabricated interior construction solutions that are easily moved, reduce construction waste and typically offer a short production window.
"She really wanted to create a space similar to a STEM-level high school," Klein said.
The benefit of using DIRTT systems is that the walls are easily movable if the nonprofit's needs change, she said.
Klein was on board right away, as was her ex-husband, Jeff Klein, who owns and operates Interior Services, the company that installs Smartt Interior's DIRTT wall systems.
Jeff's sister, Kelly Klein, has Down Syndrome.
Jeff agreed to donate a portion of the installation costs. Paula initially planned to donate her profit margin, but then decided to reach out to DIRTT to see about getting a discount.
She was able to secure "the deepest discount" they've ever gotten.
"We're calling it the 'Smartt hearts giveback.' We're really pumped about it," Paula said.
Once complete, the new GiGi's Playhouse will have a number of new and exciting features:
- A larger gym: "What we found was that our gym was the most-used place in the playhouse," Lorenzen said. "We run GiGi-Fit, a physical therapy-based fitness program, and it's our most attended program. It helps kids and adults with core strength, mobility and coordination."
- Amina Grace Speech Program: "A lot of our individuals don't say their first words because of that low tone until they're like 4 or 5. By offering speech, it gives them one more touch point beyond the therapy they're already doing," Lorenzen said.
- GiGi's Kitchen Program: The program is designed to emphasize the importance of health and wellness through nutrition education, kitchen safety and food preparation. The former playhouse had a much smaller kitchen that made it difficult to host classes. "When you fit 15 adults in there, it's tight. And they all want to push the blender button. This gives everyone more space the opportunity to use the tools that are in there," Lorenzen said.
- A stage and expanded community gathering space: Lorenzen said people immediately gravitated to the stage in the former playhouse. "Within the first 10 minutes of a kiddo or adult coming in, they'd be on the stage. A platform just brings out a whole sense of empowerment," Lorenzen said.
- Teen and adult career training center: "It will have a boardroom type of feeling, a TV and an air hockey table," Lorenzen said. "I've been to different offices, and employee morale and culture is fun. That's what this space will be."
'A second home'
As the anniversary of the fire approaches, Lorenzen prefers to focus on the future of GiGi's rather than the challenges they've faced over the last year.
After an investigation into the May structure fire, the Fargo Police Department identified a suspect and referred the case to juvenile court, according to Public Information Officer Katie Ettish.
The GiGi's construction site was also burglarized in March.
"Tools and copper wiring worth an estimated $7,100 were taken from the site," Ettish said. "No suspects have been identified at this time. If the public has any information in regards to the incident, they are encouraged to contact the Fargo Police Department at 701-451-7660."
"We've had a couple of hurdles and a tragedy, but our main focus is to be mission-forward," Lorenzen said. "Our mission is to change the way the world views Down Syndrome. Our families lost a second home."
Since opening in 2015, GiGi's Playhouse has assisted 190 families in Fargo-Moorhead and the surrounding area.
Annalise Duffy of Fargo was still pregnant with her daughter, Lakyn, when her family toured GiGi's just weeks before the fire.
"In the beginning, GiGi's, to us, was a place we knew would be there to help support Lakyn if we needed it. It was a building that had people in it who would be like Lakyn, and she'd be accepted and supported," Duffy said.
"Now, GiGi's is so much more than that," she continued. "GiGi's is comfort in knowing that Lakyn will not only be accepted and supported, but celebrated as well. It's a new family that we know will always be there for Lakyn and our family in our journey with Down Syndrome. It's that family that makes GiGi's a safe space. A home."