Vibe: Lively, supportive, and inclusive
Travel time: 10 to 15 minutes west of the heart of Denver
TIP: This free center has regular programming, but during office hours (based on staff availability, check the website for updated schedules), folks can use the space as needed for general socialization or sessions with their own tutors and therapists.
Colorado’s first GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center, which opened in October 2021, is tucked in a quiet commercial center in north Lakewood. Its windows feature portraits of local individuals with Down syndrome, and its walls are painted in happy plum, cobalt, and lime hues. A family greeter helps visitors check in, then toys, books, exercise equipment, and study spaces await to facilitate both open-ended and instructed developmental play. Club GiGi’s in the rear of the building offers teens and young adults a safe and cool place to hang.
The space itself signals something about the Down syndrome community: “It shows that we are proud of them and they’re bringing joy to our lives,” Beth Jeub, president of the center, says. “And that we’re here to support [families] and to tell [them] about the journey—the good, the bad, the challenging, and the different. When we share our resources, it’s a lot less scary.”
Jeub got her son’s diagnosis when she was 24 weeks pregnant, and there weren’t many supports in her area. That’s where GiGi’s comes in. There are more than 50 brick and mortar locations across the U.S. and Mexico, plus international connections through virtual programs, which support physical, mental, and social well being for newborns to young adults.
Play and Learn
GiGi’s 50 programs have been developed over the past 18 years with the help of therapists, educators, and physicians. Lakewood’s location will start with four core curricula: LMNOP for language and communication (newborns to 36 months), Destination Discovery for motor and social skills (all ages), GiGiFIT Teen exercise classes (ages 13 to 17), and One-to-One Literacy tutoring (age three and up). Some programs are progressive and require registration for several weeks (see online for details).
GiGi’s Playhouse is mainly led by volunteer greeters, housekeepers, program leads and assistants who train with the national organization and implement the model locally. The Lakewood location welcomes all volunteer inquiries, and is partnering with educational institutions such as Red Rocks Community College to find help from child care and therapy professionals-in-training. As the center grows, it will incorporate cooking classes, math tutoring, and other activities according to families’ needs.
A Soft Place to Land
According to GiGi’s founder Nancy Gianni, Playhouses are a “soft place to land” for parents and siblings who are adapting to a Down Syndrome diagnosis in the family. Kids and parents alike can meet new friends and feel stable using one another’s support and perspectives.
Jeub intends the center to be a special place for siblings, too, and not just another place where their brother or sister has an appointment. “My hope is that siblings get opportunities to be leaders,” she says. “[They’ll] have a space where [they] can speak and volunteer if interested.”
Join the #GenerationG Down syndrome acceptance movement and find ways to take action at iacceptyou.org.