Imagine a place where everyone is accepted and has the same opportunities to follow their dreams.
That place exists in GiGi's Playhouse.
And if a group of local parents and others have their way, Stark County will be home to one in the near future.
"We do not yet have a physical GiGi's Playhouse, but we do in spirit," said Aron Kitzmiller, a Canton Township resident working toward getting a location here in Stark County, preferably Canton. "GiGi's Playhouse is about getting people together, getting parents, families, friends, and advocates, interwoven as one."
GiGi's Playhouse is a nationwide network of Down syndrome achievement centers that give families a place to celebrate their child (prenatal through adulthood) and benefit from therapeutic, educational and career training programs. According to Kitzmiller and others, it empowers children and adults to achieve and pursue their dreams.
The nearest GiGi's Playhouse is in Lakewood. When completed, the local playhouse will include surrounding counties, including Summit, Carroll, Tuscarawas, Holmes, Wayne and Portage.
"It provides a lot of support for everyone from the time of diagnosis to adulthood," said Kitzmiller. "There are processes in place for every step so no one needs to feel alone, be it the child, the parents, friends, even the siblings."
Kitzmiller's son Max, 8, was born with Down syndrome. They have faced many of the challenges families go through.
"Sometimes siblings are overlooked," said North Canton resident Sara Heckert whose daughter, Ava, 2, was born with Down syndrome. "They are as important as anyone in a Down syndrome family, and GiGi's is a way for them to be involved and not feel left out."
The organization's mission is to change the way the world views Down syndrome.
"Most of us didn't know each other before we got involved with this," said Christina Ziga-Budd of Green, mother of 2-year-old, Monroe. "There are only four of us here, but there are eight more volunteers involved in helping get GiGi's off the ground."
According to Ziga-Budd, there are other organizations throughout Stark County for Down syndrome, but nothing like GiGi's Playhouse and the support it provides.
"People are familiar with the physical characteristics of Downs, but it is the least funded disability," Heckert said. "People fight for the rights for their children so much, but they don't always get the support they need. GiGi's helps them reach that potential."
Goals for each GiGi’s Playhouse program include creating opportunities for parent networking, providing educational tools, instilling high expectations for participants and providing purposeful programming tailored for individuals with Down syndrome.
"Everyone at the playhouse is a volunteer and everything is free, including therapies and programs," said Kitzmiller.
Local organizers are hoping to open GiGi's March 19, 2019, World Down Syndrome Day. The first major fundraiser is set for Feb. 23 at La Pizzaria in Jackson Township. Other events are being scheduled in the coming months.
"We are bringing a GiGi's Playhouse to Stark County because our children need a place for kids to be kids, for teenagers to be teenagers and for adults to be adults without being told 'no' because they happen to have an extra chromosome" said Stacy Jackson of Jackson Township, whose daughter Maleah, 18 months, has Downs.
"GiGi's Playhouse Canton will be a place where strangers become family because that extra chromosome is the invisible red thread that brings us together."
Reach Denise at 330-580-8321 or firstname.lastname@example.org; On Twitter: dsauttersREP