A collage of photos featuring children with Down Syndrome doing activities in a room.
GiGi’s Playhouse was designed to support people of all ages with Down Syndrome and their families. The playhouse has educational, career, physical, and emotional support programs that are free to everyone. Credit: Photo courtesy GiGi’s Playhouse

GiGi’s Playhouse Denver is celebrating its second year in Lakewood. It helps people with Down Syndrome and their families.

The anniversary, which is this month, coincides with National Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Leslie Klane, executive director of the playhouse, said GiGi’s was created by Nancy Gianni, whose daughter was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at birth. Nancy immediately discovered it was hard to find services or spaces to help her daughter, GiGi, and family.

“Nancy founded GiGi’s Playhouse on her own desire to make certain that families who have children with Down Syndrome have a place to go to,” Klane said. “The mission of GiGi’s is really about global awareness of acceptance for all.”

There are 58 playhouses across the U.S. and Mexico. The one in Lakewood is the only location in Colorado. Klane said that all offer the same services and aesthetics.

“What Nancy and her team have done is made certain that you’re going to walk into any GiGi’s Playhouse and it’s going to have that same welcoming, vibrant, fun and warm feel to it,” Klane said. “They’re all going to have the same colors. They’re all going to have the same verbiage on the wall about respect and kindness and support, and they’re made in a format that speaks to the individuals who have Down syndrome.”

A woman and a girl run through a white tent with glowing neon decorations on the walls.
One of the fundraisers that keeps GiGi’s Playhouse free for families in the 5K Glow Run for Acceptance. This photo is from the April 29, 2023. Credit: Photo courtesy GiGi's Playhouse Denver

The playhouse offers services that help people of all ages with Down Syndrome, including tutoring, social activities and more. Most of the people who work at GiGi’s are volunteers. and Klane said no one pays to visit GiGi’s.

“We are 90% volunteer-driven,” Klane explained. “Everything we do is about raising money so that the programs and services that we offer to those with Down Syndrome of all ages as well as to their families are free. So therefore, there is no hindrance of not being able to afford what we what we provide.”

Jerrianne West, a retired educator, spoke about her experience as a volunteer.

“Volunteering at the playhouse is amazing,” West said. “It gives you an opportunity to not only teach individuals with Down Syndrome but get to know the families that have individuals with Down Syndrome.”

According to West, there is an onboarding process for volunteers, designed by founder Gianni. The classes are required and ensure that each volunteer is prepared to work with the playhouse’s clientele.

“GiGi’s corporate provides everything that you need to know, and all the training that you need to be able to work with the individuals,” West said.

She assures future volunteers that the classes are not difficult.

“It’s seamless,” she said. “It’s easy and it makes the playhouses warm and welcoming. It’s one of the best experience experiences I’ve had as a volunteer.”

GiGi’s volunteers are also pioneers. GiGiFIT classes were developed by two Wheat Ridge physicians, according to Klane.

“Dr. Sarah Mann and Dr. Jennifer Spiric have pioneered research in purposeful physical therapy for individuals with Down syndrome,” West said. “GiGiFIT caters specifically to the unique physiological needs and concerns of people with Down syndrome, while also building a foundation of strength, stability, balance, mobility, reflex integration, and endurance.”

According to Klane, the GiGiFIT programs are available at GiGi’s Playhouse Denver, 57 GiGi’s Playhouse locations across the country, as well as online through the Virtual Playhouse.

People standing in front of a backdrop.
GiGi’s Playhouse Denver celebrated two years of serving Colorado families on Oct. 14. In this photo, from the right, GiGi’s Playhouse Denver, Executive Director, Leslie Klane, Co-Board Presidents, Kendra Vander Wal and Joseph Wainwright, along with board members Maggie Phillips, AJ Atherton, Kelsie Brandt, and Anna Cooper. Credit: Photo courtesy GiGi’s Playhouse

West and Klane both urge the public to check out GiGi’s Playhouse. There are opportunities for volunteering and so much more.

“Consider volunteering,” West said. 

The first step, according to West, is scheduling a tour of the playhouse. 

“Then sign up for the virtual training or the in-person training,” West said. Then, once approved and fully onboarded, volunteers can fully experience the playhouse. 

For more information on GiGi’s Playhouse and to sign up for a tour, visit GiGisPlayhouse.org.

Jonita Davis is a film and culture critic, author, and freelance writer. Her published books include Questioning Cultural Appropriation (2018 Enslow Publishing), Carrying On (2022 Saga Fiction), and the...

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