A place and a message

(First published in the January 30, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Local organizers aim for a June opening of GiGi’s Playhouse for people with Down Syndrome and their families

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Erica Erdman and her son, Braxton, in the space in Weston soon to become a play and resource center for those with Down Syndrome.

When Erica Erdman and her son, Braxton, were visiting Madison in 2018, her sister-in-law introduced them to something Erdman had never heard of before: GiGi’s Playhouse, a resource center for families of children with Down Syndrome.

Braxton was born with Down Syndrome, and exhibits some of the more severe effects, including a compromised immune system, inability to speak, and hypertonia which leaves him very strong in some ways but lacking strength in others. For example, Erdman says, Braxton didn’t walk until he was nearly two years old.

When Braxton went to a GiGi’s Playhouse in Madison the first time, Erdman instantly saw how well he took to everything and felt at home in the space. The visit obviously had a big effect on him. But it wasn’t until later that Erdman realized what an impact it had on herself as well.

“It was pointed out to me by my sister-in-law that for the first time I could simply be,” Erdman says. “What does that mean? It means I could finally be in the moment, not worrying.”

And Erdman immediately seized on the idea that Wausau needed a similar place.

That was 2018. This Saturday a local GiGi’s Playhouse will hold an open house at their future location, 3901 Schofield Ave. in a space that once housed Snap Fitness. The local group spearheading the effort hopes to open the center to families by June.

There are more than 500 children and adults with Down Syndrome in north central Wisconsin, local organizers of GiGi’s Playhouse say, and many families in the outer regions already travel to Wausau regularly for therapy, Erdman says. She and other volunteers hope to give parents and children with Down Syndrome the same experience she had in Madison.

GiGi’s Playhouse was founded Nancy Gianni, whose experience was similar to Erdman’s: both had children diagnosed with a Down Syndrome diagnosis after they were born (the condition is often detected in utero); and both mothers were surprised at the lack of information, resources, and at people’s negative reactions toward the diagnosis.

Gianni founded the first GiGi’s Playhouse 16 years ago, named after her daughter GiGi, and now there are 40 locations, including one in Mexico.

Erdman says Wausau’s playhouse was meant to be a pop-up operation—using various locations as available with mobile fixtures and equipment. But after about six months of fundraising and logistics planning, supporters realized a pop-up model wouldn’t really accomplish what the organization was about.

Then they discovered the open gym-type space in Weston. The price was right and they could expand without moving. They hope to start with four modules, Erdman says. Programs include a family room, a sensory room, a lab teaching life skills such as cooking healthy meals, and a one-on-one tutoring lab, as well as a gym. The local GiGi’s group also partnered with Special Olympics of Wisconsin to bring a young athletes program. The center is meant to serve everyone with Down Syndrome from birth to adulthood. The total build-out is expected to cost between $60,000-$80,000, Erdman says.

The center is important not just to the families and their children, but also to spread the message of accepting people with Down Syndrome. “It’s a big ripple effect,” Erdman says.

GiGi’s Playhouse founder Nancy Gianni and her daughter GiGi will appear in Wausau Tuesday, Feb. 11, for a book signing event of their book #GenerationG –A True Story of Miracles, Hope & Unconditional Acceptance. See their Facebook page for details.