Family Foundation

January 2019 View more

GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley supports individuals with Down syndrome

A local nonprofit coordinator now gives back to the organization that supported her daughter

When Katie Vaughan’s daughter was born with Down syndrome, she and her husband were thrust into an unfamiliar world. “Zoe was going through things my friends’ children weren’t. As a family we were going through things no one truly understood,” Vaughan recalls. When her daughter turned 1, they visited GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that supports individuals with Down syndrome and their families. “When I walked into GiGi’s, I saw they got it. They understood right away all the different trials and tribulations that happen with a special needs child.” Feeling welcomed and accepted, Vaughan saw her daughter thrive. Now, in her role as site coordinator for GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley, she makes sure other families have the same positive experience.

A Place of Acceptance
GiGi’s Playhouse was created to change the way the world views a Down syndrome diagnosis, and send a global message of acceptance for all. While many online support organizations exist, GiGi’s Playhouse is the only one with actual physical locations where people can gather for support. The nonprofit began in 2002 when founder Nancy Gianni gave birth to her daughter GiGi. When hospital staff realized GiGi was born with Down syndrome, the atmosphere in the room immediately changed from celebration to sympathy. After attending a support group in a sterile hospital room, Gianni was inspired to create a warm and welcoming place where families could come for resources and networking—a place where the diagnosis would be celebrated and supported.

Gianni founded the first GiGi’s Playhouse in Hoffman Estates, and two years later opened a second location in Fox Valley. In only 15 years, the nonprofit has grown to 40 locations throughout the U.S. and Mexico, and has over 200 inquiries to open more sites. By 2020, the organization hopes to have a site in every major U.S. metropolitan area.

Practical Programming
GiGi’s Playhouse offers programs that are educational and therapeutic and makes a lifelong commitment to its families. “All our programs are purposeful and advance different skills,” Vaughan explains. “Most importantly, they are all are free. We are 100 percent funded by donations, grants, and sponsorships, and 99 percent run by volunteers.”

At GiGi’s Playhouse, families experience love, encouragement, and acceptance. “We are always looking for celebration moments,” Vaughan explains. “Celebrating even the smallest successes is so important. It’s what makes people want to be a part of what we are doing and keeps them coming back.”
Recently the nonprofit launched an initiative in schools and on social media called GenerationG, which inspires people to be more accepting, generous, and kind. “If we can help people appreciate those with differences, we’ll make the world a better place for everyone.”

Vaughan, a former teacher, became site coordinator in May 2018 after volunteering for several years with the preschool prep and literacy programs at GiGi’s Playhouse. In her current role, the Oswego resident and mother of two handles everything from coordinating programs and volunteers, to conducting administrative and marketing tasks. Vaughan also volunteers for the National Association for Down Syndrome’s welcome basket program by visiting families of newborns with Down syndrome in the hospital.

Special Encouragement
Though the work might be difficult at times, Vaughan looks no further than to her daughter for inspiration.

“Zoe has so many challenges, yet she keeps going with a smile on her face. She has so much perseverance and brings joy to so many people,” Vaughan explains. “When you have a child with special needs you truly understand what’s important. Being able to love people and have love in return is really what we are all here for. That’s what I feel people with Down syndrome show the world. That’s why it’s so important to support them and this community.”

For more information about GiGi’s Playhouse, including its Chicagoland fundraising gala on February 2, visit

Photo courtesy Gigi’s Playhouse