Gigi’s Playhouse Changing Lives for Individuals with Down Syndrome

COVER STORY | By Patti Parish-Kaminski –

Carter, Audie, Carly and Niyah Durham in Gigi’s Playroom. Photo by Joey Belleza

Be accepting.
Be generous.
Be kind.

I first saw this trio of affirmations when I received an e-mail from Dawn Schordock, operations director of Gigi’s Playhouse.  I glanced over these words noting what a powerful statement together they created.

If only everyone had these words in their e-mail signatures, I thought, that would be so positive, so uplifting.  While I did notice the words, I truly had no idea just how important and meaningful they were until I was blessed to walk in a fashion show benefitting Gigi’s Playhouse.  The children, families and volunteers I met embodied these words in an extraordinary way – so extraordinary in fact, that I felt the story of Gigi’s Playhouse and Gigi moms were perfect to share for Mother’s Day.

Building the Playhouse

Gigi’s Playhouse is a Down Syndrome Achievement Center whose mission is to change the way the world sees Down syndrome through national campaigns, educational programs and by empowering individuals with Down syndrome, their families and the community.  It is the only international network of Down Syndrome Achievement Centers created to provide free life-changing programs for all ages.

Carter Durham on stage strutting his stuff.

Founded in 2003 by CNN Hero Nancy Gianni after the birth of her daughter, Gigi, Gianni created the non-profit organization out of frustration from negative reactions from her medical team and a lack of positive, practical resources for children and parents.  She began with one pilot Playhouse in Illinois, and by the end of this year, there is expected to be 47 Gigi’s Playhouses across the United States and Mexico.

A vital resource for the community, Gigi’s Playhouse arrived in Sugar Land in December 2015 to families eager to be a part of the Gigi’s family.  Gigi mom Carly Durham became involved with Gigi’s through a mutual friend, whose daughter has Down syndrome.  “We are so grateful to know one of the co-founders of Gigi’s in Sugar Land, Ammie Blahuta,” shared Durham.  So, when she and her husband’s world “got wonderfully turned upside down with the adoptions of the two cutest kids, who also happen to have Down syndrome,” they had a resource.


The Durham Family


Carly, Audie and Niyah Durham walk the runway as models for Gigi’s Playhouse with emcee Kathryn Self.

Jon and Carly Durham adopted Carter from the Ukraine and Niyah from foster care.  The children, now five and four, were recently joined by a sibling, Audie Joy, born at Christmas last year.  “Eight years of infertility placed on my heart what an honor it is to be called Mama by three extraordinary kids,” shared Carly.  “The beautiful, messy, overwhelming love and affection of motherhood is a powerful force.”

Gigi’s has been a part of the Durham family since adopting Carter and Niyah.  “The doctor we saw overseas for our medical release to travel blatantly told us we were wasting our life by adopting a child with Down syndrome,” said Carly.  “The reality of that statement is dark and sits heavy on the soul.  But at Gigi’s, you find light.  You find a place where a community will come alongside a family and celebrate their child, provide free resources and help support their growth and potential.”

Both Carter and Niyah love going to Gigi’s.  Carter will ask to go by signing for “Gigi’s House,” and Niyah’s loves the Music Program at Gigi’s.  “Niyah always has a song in her heart,” shared Carly.  “Using music helps her engage, and it helps unlock so much of what she knows.”


Nicole LaSala


The LaSala Family: Carl, Stephanie, Annette, Spencer, Cari, Carl, Nicole and Kelly. Photo by The Bird & The Bear.

Gigi mom Annette LaSala welcomed her middle child of five children, Nicole, and was advised to get early intervention as soon as possible to provide her with a good foundation.  Diagnosed with Down syndrome within a day of her birth, Nicole’s mom got busy getting her into programs.  “By 18 months, Nicole was walking and progressing well,” shared Annette.  “So well she was named the Easter Seal Child Representative for a year when she turned three.”

Five-years-old when the family moved to Sugar Land, Nicole spent her elementary years at Walker Station and went on to middle and high school in Fort Bend.  During a Special Olympics practice, Annette learned about Gigi’s, and Nicole’s journey there began with a monthly Friday night program for adults, the only adult activity available at the time.  “Now, there is the weekly TEAM (teach, eat, activity, movement) that runs for ten weeks, Attitude for Gratitude and Art Explosion weekly, Fantastic Friends monthly and opportunities for volunteering, such as manning a table at the University of Houston to promote World Down Syndrome Day, dancing a number at a bowling alley fundraiser and participating in the fashion shows,” shared Annette.

Nicole, niece Isabella, younger sister Stephanie, nephew Rex and Annette LaSala.

Annette’s favorite Gigi’s memory was during a holiday celebration at a pub.  Gigi’s adult participants were seated together when a parent sang God Bless the USA during the karaoke session. “Nicole remembered learning how to sign the song during choir in elementary school,” shared Annette.  “My very reserved adult jumped up and went to the stage near the parent to sign the song.  I cried, and I don’t think I was the only there who did so.”

Nicole’s favorite activity at Gigi’s is Attitude for Gratitude, where she sends thank you letters to donors and decorates bags for Lunches of Love.  “As a parent, it is so heartwarming to see Nicole blossom into a mature adult,” said Annette.  “Where once we received one-word answers, now she sits and holds discussions with us.  She has a come a long way from the girl who grudgingly went to Gigi’s to the girl who looks forward to everything that is available to do there.”

As one of five siblings, the LaSala family followed sage advice when it came to Nicole:  treat her the same as the rest of her siblings.  “That little piece of advice has made Nicole an equal part of our family and showed our other children that Nicole was not different from them,” said Annette.  “That is what we want our community to know also, and Gigi’s is doing just that.”

For more information about Gigi’s, visit gigisplayhouse.org/sugarland.

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Gigi’s Playhouse Purposeful Programs

Programs at Gigi’s Playhouse are purposeful:  they are focused on therapeutic educational and/or career development goals.  With their permanent location in Sugar Land, Gigi’s creates a sense of place that fosters consistent participation and commitment.  And best of all, programs are one hundred percent cost free to families.

The two types of purposeful programs at Gigi’s Playhouse are signature therapeutic-based and signature education-based programs, and each program has a recommended age for participants:

Signature Therapeutic-Based

LMNOP – LMNOP is an interactive and engaging program designed to guide parents and young children through learning basic sign language and other forms of communication using music and language-based activities. Ages: Newborn to 36 months.

Crawlers & Walkers – Focusing on the development of gross and fine motor skills through activities that are hands-on and fun, social skills and language development is also addressed.  The focus is on learning new words, following directions and interacting with peers.  Ages:  One to five-year-old.

Leaps & Bounds – This program helps promote social, emotional, large and small muscle group development. Children participate in fun and engaging activities that require movement and interaction with their environment. Ages: Three to five-years-old.

Playhouse Pals – Pals support the development of social skills and language through peer to peer interaction in a casual, fun setting. This program also supports gross motor skills through active games, as well as fine motor skills and self-help skills.  Ages:  Five to eight-years-old.

Kids Club – Designed to support the development of social skills and language through peer to peer interaction in a casual, fun setting, Kids Club will also support gross motor skills through active games, fine motor and self-help skills through meal/snack preparation and activities.  Ages:  Eight to 12-years-old.

Teen Tastic – Focused on building social skills with friends without Down syndrome by participating in team-based activities in a casual, fun setting, the skill development taught in this program includes understanding compromise, turn-taking and problem-solving abilities.  Ages: 13 to 77 years-old.

Fantastic Friends – A fun night out to facilitate social interactions between adults with Down syndrome, their peers and the community, this program supports the development of social skills and language through peer to peer interaction.  Ages:  Adults 18 and up.

Destination Discovery – This program supports the development of fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills and language through purposeful play and peer to peer interaction in a casual and fun setting. This program also brings families together to share experiences and build relationships. All ages welcome.

The Amina Grace Speech & Language Program – This program provides youth, teens and adults with greatly expanded opportunities to evolve and refine their speech and language skills in a one-on-one setting. Effective enunciation, clarity of speech, word order and message meaning are paramount to fostering greater self-confidence, comprehension, problem-solving, school readiness, social skills, independence, and overall quality of life. All ages welcome.

Signature Education-Based

Literacy Tutoring – Each individual learns to read and develop literacy skills at a different pace. The GiGi’s one-on-one Literacy Program builds a foundation in sight word recognition, vocabulary, comprehension and articulation through one-on-one literacy tutoring adapted to fit the learning style of individuals with Down syndrome.  Ages:  Three and up. 

Math Tutoring – The aim of the Math Program is to help promote a positive experience of learning mathematics and to develop a sound foundation of basic number understanding. Understanding that children will vary greatly in individual abilities and challenges in comprehending math, Gigi’s combined multiple approaches, which utilize multi-sensory teaching, and aligned them with topics taught in the classroom, to provide a comprehensive and cohesive program.

For more information about Gigi’s Playhouse in Sugar Land, visit www.gigisplayhouse.org/sugarland.