By Christine Valdez
Web Production Assistant
Many organizations and laws have changed the way people think about and react to those with disabilities. The Special Olympics has showcased that population’s talents and abilities to overcome difficulties. In New Jersey, one mom’s quest to find the help that her son needs ended up providing opportunities to a large population in the state.
When Erin Morris moved to New Jersey a few years ago from New York, she was hoping to find a support system and services to aid her youngest son Ben who has Down syndrome. While making the move to New Jersey, Morris was able to find some services but they didn’t address all of the needs and concerns she had. After being exposed to GiGi’s Playhouse — a Down syndrome achievement center — during a visit to Chicago, Morris thought about the possibility of bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to the Garden State.
“I am a mother of four children and my youngest son Ben is 4 years old and he has Down syndrome. And when we moved here just over two years ago, I was looking for opportunities and programs available throughout New Jersey,” said Morris. “I really just thought, ‘What else could I add here that New Jersey is lacking?'”
Although New Jersey does have some services dedicated to Down syndrome, Morris says that she felt the need to bring Gigi’s Playhouse here in order to give more opportunities and resources to the Down syndrome population.
“I think in New Jersey, we’re really lucky that there are a lot of good programs for individuals with special needs in general,” she said. “What they offer is very different than what GiGi’s offers and I did feel like there … that we could give more to the Down syndrome population by bringing a GiGi’s. I always think there’s room for improvement and I think that the Down syndrome population didn’t have any resources specifically designed for them.”
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, about 400,000 people are living in the United States with Down syndrome. About one in every 691 babies are born with Down syndrome in the U.S. The National Down Syndrome Society says that quality educational programs, a stimulating home environment, good health care and positive support from family help them develop their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.
While on her quest to find her son and the Down syndrome population additional programs, Morris began to organize ways to bring GiGi’s Playhouse to New Jersey. After fundraising and getting the word out, GiGi’s Playhouse officially opened in New Jersey with a location in Hillsborough. The facility in Hillsborough is the first in New Jersey, but it is the 18th Playhouse to open nationwide. Morris is the president of the Hillsborough location.
GiGi’s Playhouse aims to achieve the goals outlined by the National Down Syndrome Society. Nationwide, GiGi’s offers programs and activities that provide therapeutic activities for individuals. All of the programs at GiGi’s are geared toward growth motor development, fine motor development, speech, self confidence, healthy eating habits and wellness.
GiGi’s is open to all age groups and has specifically designed programs and activities based on its population. Some of the programs offered nationwide include family night, literacy and math tutoring, art explosion and Friday Friends — with each program geared toward the different age ranges and groups. At the Hillsborough location, programs range from early learners to adults. In the programs for school-age children and teens, Teen Tactic is geared toward their needs. For young adults and adults, Friday Friends serves as a fun night out for everyone to take part in social interactions. Parent support programs are also offered at the Hillsborough location.
“Here in New Jersey we’re really excited because we have individuals across all age ranges come to the Playhouse, who are looking for programs. So we have something really for every age group,” Morris said.
At the GiGi’s in Hillsborough, Morris says that they are working on a program dedicated to fitness and wellness. As some traits related to Down syndrome include low muscle tone, Morris is looking at ways to include fitness into offered programs.
The goals for every GiGi’s Playhouse and their programs are to create opportunities for parents to share ideas and network with one another. According to the GiGi’s Playhouse website, programs are designed to embrace the family and help aid the development of a healthy, successful relationship between parents, individuals with Down syndrome and siblings.
While the Hillsborough Playhouse has only been open for a couple of months, it has seen many families come in search of programs that serve the needs of individuals with Down syndrome. According to Morris, about 150 families are currently being served at the Hillsborough location. Morris says that families have traveled from all over the state and from outside of New Jersey — from areas such as Philadelphia — have traveled in search of these programs.
“It really goes to show how much people are looking for these types of programs, that they’re willing to travel that far and the value that they’re seeing in the programs that GiGi’s has to offer that they’re willing to take that time,” Morris said.
At the Hillsborough location, Morris says that GiGi’s welcomes people of all abilities, which she says helps add to the experience. While GiGi’s helps to serve the needs of the Down syndrome community, GiGi’s also welcomes anyone who would like to volunteer. Currently at the Hillsborough location, volunteer opportunities as program leaders, program volunteers and administrative volunteers exist, just to name a few.
GiGi’s Playhouse tries to give the community a positive take on Down syndrome.
“We’ve been really able to show the community what individuals with Down syndrome are capable of,” Morris said. “Part of the GiGi’s Playhouse mission is to empower individuals with Down syndrome, their families and the community. And I really think that even in the months that we’ve been opened, we’ve been really able to do that.”
Hillsborough joins El Paso, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Layton and Indianapolis as the most recent GiGi’s Playhouses. The need and demand for GiGi’s Playhouse has increased. Playhouse number 24 is preparing to open in West Chester, N.Y.
By serving the needs of families in New Jersey and outside of the state, Morris is proud of the support and growth of the Playhouse in Hillsborough. Due to that success, Morris thinks that there is a possibility that GiGi’s can open another Playhouse in New Jersey.
“I think that it would be wonderful to be able to have Playhouses in the south, central and northern parts of the state,” she said. “I think as we really grow, GiGi’s Playhouse Hillsborough right now can show the community and the state and the population what we have to offer. That is absolutely a possibility in the future.”