CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — From a dream years ago and far away to the reality of opening the doors a week from now. That marks the long, deliberate and detailed process to bring a learning and support center for families impacted by Down syndrome.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Amy Flege, of Ely, a mother of three, including her daughter, Mayson, who is touched by the condition. Flege said, years ago, her family enjoyed a weekend in suburban Chicago at a Gigi’s Playhouse. “They gave us a key for the weekend and all of us families got to be together and we became a family. When I left there, that’s when I decided I wanted to bring this to the corridor area.”
On September 6, Gigi’s Playhouse will open in Cedar Rapids, at 4330 Czech Lane, just off Center Point Road. This is the culmination of years of dreaming, plotting, planning and, of course, raising thousands of dollars.
“This year, we’ve brought in over $60,000 and that has allowed us to get to where we are,” said Flege.
Flege, and other parents with children or relatives with Down Syndrome, do live in a world that can be different than many others. Down syndrome is also known as Trisomy 21 — a genetic disorder cause by an extra chromosome. Those with Down syndrome often experience delays in physical and intellectual growth. Certain physical traits can also be apparent on children and adults with the disorder. The National Down Syndrome Society estimates more than 400,000 people in the United States have Down syndrome.
Gigi’s Playhouse came to be only 11 years ago in Hoffman Estates, Ill., from a parents of a girl named Gigi. The mission is to offer free programs to support families and also help enhance the education and learning of children and adults impacted by Down syndrome. Most of the Gigi’s locations are throughout the Midwest, including in Des Moines, Sioux City and the Quad Cities.
A year ago, Flege stressed the group here was working to obtain a location and raise all of the money needed to open a Gigi’s in Cedar Rapids and also maintain it.
“We are totally volunteer and donation-based,” said Flege. “Everything that we offer is free, ages birth to adult.”
Yet on the day we visited, a week before the September opening, the room was already bustling with toddlers and older children in active play on the floor, a fully stocked learning room in the back, as well as kitchen and bathroom facilities.
“When they come in the door, this is a place of inclusion, a place where they are loved, respected and included in activities for all ages,” said Paula Hill, board president of the Gigi’s Playhouse in Cedar Rapids. “We have literacy programs to support whatever they’re getting in the school.”
Hill did talk about the benefit of a Gigi’s to “break down the walls of isolation” that some parents may feel, living in a world where a child’s genetic disorder may be apparent to others but still misunderstood.
While this week marks the achievement, like a child’s developing mind, keeping the center open and running will take constant nurturing.
“What people need to realize the most is, if you’re thinking that somebody else will do it, don’t,” said Hill. “Make a donation, come and volunteer in the literacy, support in a fundraising program. A year from now, we’ll continue to need those volunteers and we’ll continue to need those funds.”
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