Q&A with Mary Jo Klein

GiGi’s Playhouse’s board of managers president talks about how the nonprofit helps more than 450 families in CNY. The agency assists those with Down syndrome

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: Can you describe GiGi’s Playhouse and what services are provided?

A: GiGi’s Playhouse is a Down syndrome awareness center. Our mission is to change the way the world views Down syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all. We change lives through consistent delivery of free educational, therapeutic-based and career development programs for individuals with Down syndrome, their families, as well as the community and we do it through our playhouse model.

Q: What is that model?

A: The programs we offer are all designed by individuals in our national office in Chicago. We offer literacy and math tutoring. Our volunteers are given the proper materials and the proper training, so that they can tutor. We also offer GiGi FIT a physical therapy-based fitness program designed specifically for individuals with Down syndrome by a physical therapist. We offer every level — infant, toddler, kids, teen and adult. With the older kids, we track their meals; we track their water intake because it also helps them with healthy habits. Another program is GiGi’s kitchen for kids, teens, and adults. This teaches our individuals how to safely use kitchen utensils and kitchen tools. They read a recipe, they make the recipe and a lot of times they’re trying foods that they’ve never had before. It also teaches them healthy eating habits.

Another program is called LMNOP. It is for ages birth up until 3, but we don’t cut it off at 3 years because sometimes they may be a little bit older but still need it. It’s a sign language class and incorporates music, stories and play, while introducing sign language as an alternate way to communicate. Our families love it because a lot of our kids are delayed with their verbal usage.

For older kids, we have Fantastic Friends. They gather either in the Playhouse or out in the community, go to different events and activities.

Q: These services are all free for families, is that correct?

A: Absolutely.

Q: How many families are served in the Central New York area?

A: A little more than 450 families are registered with us today.

Q: GiGi’s Playhouse is a national organization. When was the local group established?

A: We were established in November of 2012. We were the 12th Playhouse to open and the second Playhouse in New York state. We currently have 58 playhouses in the United States and in Mexico, and we reach more than 80 countries virtually.

Q: How are you funded?

A: We’re mainly funded by our events and our donors. We have two main events. The first in the spring is GFAC [GiGi’s FIT Acceptance Challenge]. It’s a 5K, a walk and a kids’ dash at Long Branch Park. It’s a great celebration for acceptance. On Oct. 2, is our annual golf outing. Again, we rely on donations and grants.

Q: Is there an age range for the people that you serve?

A: No. Say a new mom is diagnosed in utero — they can come in, talk to us. We tell them about our programs. We’ll set them up with a current family and they can talk to the family and share experiences. Then as soon as that baby is born, they can come in, they can come to LMNOP, they can come into open play at the gym. We have a huge gym full of toys and equipment. We serve them all the way through adulthood.

Q: How many volunteers do you have?

A: The last count was about 160 volunteers. We’re always looking for more. We are in search of new board members.

Q: What is the best way for them to get in touch?

A: Our general e-mail: Syracuse@gigisplayhouse.org

Q: How long have you served as president of the board of managers and what does your involvement mean to you?

A: I’ve been president for three years and before that, I was on the board as secretary for a year. My children grew up with David [a neighborhood child with Down syndrome], who lived down the street and was a very good friend of theirs. They treated David as he should be treated. Unfortunately, David passed away almost five years ago. Being part of GiGi’s is keeping his legacy going.

GiGi’s Playhouse is located on the upper level of the mall area at Driver’s Village, Cicero. For more information, email Syracuse@gigisplayhouse.org.