"ALL OF US ARE SECONDS AWAY FROM BEING DIFFERENT OR LOVING SOMEONE WHO IS DIFFERENT."- NANCY GIANNI FOUNDER AND CHIEF BELIEF OFFICER
It could happen with a simple fall off a bike, the birth of a new baby or grandbaby, or a debilitating illness. Differences do not discriminate. They do not care who you are. They do not care that you’re “low risk” or “not those kinds of people.” When you experience that difference in yourself or someone you love, your world changes drastically, and you’ll find yourself yearning for a more accepting world; that is exactly what GiGi’s Playhouse works towards every day.19 years ago, I didn’t know that the birth of my daughter GiGi and the shock of a Down syndrome diagnosis would be a miracle, but let me tell you, it has triggered a series of miracles that are changing the world every single day.
What began with one Playhouse in 2003 grew into 60 locations and startups by 2020. GiGi’s Playhouse operates with a replicable, hub-and spoke model originating from the National office. We have developed a strategic, step-by-step process created for communities that want to open a GiGi’s Playhouse. Our organization is 99% volunteer-run, with 5% general operating expenses. As of this writing, we are serving individuals in 82 countries with a mix of virtual and in-person programming.
When you mix unwavering belief and a great business model, you create an unstoppable force! When you can scale that mix to the masses, you create change! I know that running a 16 million dollar international not-for-profit funded by private donations and providing extensively researched, intensive and successful programs for free does not fit into any fortune 500 CEO’s business model. But you know who wins with the model? The kids and the world. Has it been easy? Absolutely not. Are we changing lives? Absolutely. When you can spread your entrepreneurial spirit and help others find theirs, amazing things can happen!
That is the key to our GiGi’s model: empowerment and innovation! Help people find their passion and give them the tools to execute. 60 GiGi’s locations and startups are serving families every day in their communities with free tutoring in literacy and math, free speech therapy and therapeutic-based programming, free career skills training, and the social tools they need to succeed in life. At the very same time, they are giving their community a dedicated place to learn about the value of acceptance and how they can be a part of changing lives. A place that feels like Disneyland but has the bravery of a lion.
All of the incredible programming is getting individuals with Down syndrome ready for the world. But is the world ready for them?
Our Playhouses are hit with vandalism. Our kids are attacked, excluded from organ transplants, and segregated in their schools and communities. People with disabilities still endure discrimination, and it is not OK.
We have activists who stand up for women, animals, different races, and sexual orientations, but no one is protecting our amazing individuals with special needs. Why are people not outraged by this? I am happy that people are stepping up to start movements for change, but let’s not just stand up for what is popular at the time. Let’s stand up for what is right. Let’s stand up for the people who have the most (so much?) to teach us in life.
That is where our social movement for change, #GenerationG, comes in. #GenerationG is a conscious decision to be better every day. Be accepting, be generous, be kind. We can all do this. GiGi’s has created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative for schools, communities, and corporate America called iacceptyou.org. The time is overdue for people with disabilities to have a voice in this world. I encourage you to take the #GenerationG pledge for acceptance at iacceptyou.org and make
your voice count.
When I think back to the day I was blindsided by GiGi’s diagnosis I see the true meaning of miracles. Miracles are not always pretty or easily found, and sometimes you have to search for them. They may even be disguised in pain or tragedy. But it’s what you do with the pain that brings the miracle to the forefront. It is finding that inner strength that propels you to action. Don’t think you don’t have that strength! You are born with it. We all have it, sometimes we just have to find it. Thankfully I found mine and now it is changing lives every day.(worldwide? Globally?) When you think beyond business and open yourself up to belief and miracles incredible things can happen. I am living proof of that.
Nancy Gianni is the Founder and Chief Belief Officer of GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers. Launched in 2003, today there are 61 GiGi’s Playhouses and startups in the United States and Mexico, serving families in 82 countries with free therapeutic, educational and career programming.