Linda is the site coordinator for GiGi’s Playhouse, a not-for-profit achievement center serving 300 families in the Fox Valley area who have a family member with Downs syndrome. Her enthusiasm for GiGi’s Playhouse is contagious.
Q: What is Gigi’s Playhouse Fox Valley?
We offer 14 social, therapeutic and educational programs at GiGi’s to infants, children, teens and adults. Our programs are 100% free to our families and include Preschool Prep, Daddy and Me, Kids Club, Little Aces Tennis Program, Dance at GiGi’s, Hispanic Playgroup, Teen Tastic, Fantastic Friends, Family Fun Night, Art Explosion, Karate Kickers, LMNOP/Music and Sign Language, Open Play and one-on-one Math and Literacy Tutoring. All of these programs have high expectations, positive energy and strive to alter outdated perceptions of individuals with Down syndrome.
Numbers of families served: 300 families, ranging from those who attend the weekly programs to those looking for occasional support and Down syndrome resources.
Year opened: The Fox Valley Playhouse was the second location to open in 2005. The first GiGi’s Playhouse opened in 2003.
Q: Tell me more about your role as site coordinator? Aside from giving and getting hugs from our kiddos, my role is similar to that of a ringmaster. In short, super fun, always changing, and forever challenging. I am the “face of the playhouse,” its heart and soul, welcoming families, volunteers and donors. I am the collector of our families’ stories, the manager of our volunteer needs, and event support, and the publisher of our marketing/communications, online calendar, Facebook, and blog postings. All of that, in addition to the day-to-day administration, office management, and oversight of our interns keeps me busy and engaged.
Q: What do you like best in your role? I love our families. I love it when a new family walks through our doors and immediately feels welcome, at home, and not alone anymore. I love our existing families, and the encouragement and support they show to our new families. I love the little kiddos and their excitement at just being in the Playhouse. I feel proud when an older student actually runs to one of our tutoring rooms eager to learn or beams with pride when they show us what they have accomplished. There are 31 locations in the United States and Mexico, so being part of a global network of like minds and goals is very inspiring. In my role I am encouraged to get out and talk about GiGi’s Playhouse to the community.
Q: What have you learned from your work with people who have Down syndrome? Our founder, Nancy Gianni, stated that “never did I dream that (her daughter) GiGi’s diagnosis would lead to a worldwide movement, and that positive belief could inspire daily achievement and collective action. Dreams come true every day at GiGi’s Playhouse. Confidence grows from diverse programs and positive vibes”. I truly believe this as well. Working with our families I have seen firsthand that individuals with Down syndrome are more typical than not, and that whatever they think they can accomplish, they can and will!
Q: What jobs have you held before this one? After graduation from Michigan State University, I held positions in retail management, advertising and public relations. My last “job” was in 1994, where I worked as an account manager for a large home builder in California. We moved around a lot before settling in Naperville in 1999. My three children were all young then and we were far from family. I started volunteering at their schools to make friends. Before I knew it, my youngest was graduating high school, and I had served on nearly every possible committee in District 204. Along the way I volunteered as a Wish Granter for the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Illinois. In 2004, along with three other Naperville women, I founded Naperville Pom & Cheer, in conjunction with the St. Raphael Football organization.
Q: What’s your secret for keeping all the balls in the air? As one of two Site-Coordinators at GiGi’s, I wear many hats. My co-worker and I have to be extremely organized and talk every day. We have worked together for three years, and complement each other nicely. I have been very fortunate to work with several dedicated interns who also have a passion for helping others. I have an amazing Board of Directors that make sure that the GiGi’s Playhouse vision to see a world where individuals with Down syndrome are accepted and embraced by their families, their schools, and especially in our communities is their mission. But the key to keeping GiGi’s moving forward is our network of extremely reliable volunteers. Every one of our programs is run by volunteers, and without them, I would not be able to do what I do, or offer our families the support and help that they need.
Q: What’s the best advice you ever received? It may sound typical, but to concentrate on the big picture, enjoy the little things in life and have fun while doing it. I like organization and a controlled environment, so I always have to take a step back and remember this long-ago-given-advice. Also, be nice. People will always remember you if you are nice to them.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your career? That all people matter. In all of the roles throughout my life, they have always been about helping when and where I can. It doesn’t matter what your title or role is, if you can help, you should.
Q: What are future plans for GiGis Playhouse Fox Valley? We hope to continue to serve our families by offering even more quality programs that provide purposeful progressions to our youngest learners through to adulthood. We plan to become an even bigger presence in our Fox Valley community by becoming more involved in and attending more Chamber, NFP and special events in the area. The future of GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley, is that we are changing perceptions and helping our individuals with Down syndrome achieve their greatest potential, by changing the way the world sees Down syndrome, one child, one diagnosis, one community at a time.