A group of Long Islanders saw a need for a safe space for people with Down syndrome and, despite COVID-19, they made it happen.
Founded in 2003, GiGi’s Playhouse is an international network of achievement centers, providing free therapeutic and educational programs for people of all ages. This month, the nonprofit’s 52nd location — and Long Island’s first — will open in Patchogue.
But families from across both North and South shores helped bring this safe space to life.
Mike Cirigliano, board president and owner of Cirigliano Agency, said that GiGi’s Playhouse Long Island will help fill a void for families of loved ones with Down syndrome. Over the course of several years, the group tried to find the perfect site, scouting locations across Long Island. They eventually settled on 100 Austin St. (in Patchogue), where they took over three of the four units inside the building.
Located right off Sunrise Highway, he said the spot is easy for families to get to whether they come from Nassau County or the Hamptons.
“There is a true need for this on Long Island,” he said. “This is where people can come — a place where parents who need a place to go with their child can come play, hang out.”
But it’s not just a place to chill. Board member Karyn Degnan said it will offer programs for people with a prenatal diagnosis to those adults with Down syndrome.
“Moms and dads can go to this common place to talk and share their stories,” she said. “They can grow with the center.”
The new facility offers everything from fine motor skills to speech and socialization programs, to tutoring, exercise classes and even a kitchen where young adults can learn how to cook.
Degnan, a Centereach mom of three, said two of her children have Down syndrome: Sal, who’s 11 and daughter Ryan, who’s 5.
“As my kids grow, they have a teen center there — a place where people can go as they grow into their young adulthood life,” she said. “It’s a place where they can feel like they belong.”
Cirigliano said that although the fundraising aspect and search for a spot has been years in the making, they officially signed the lease in early February. Over the last month, the group of 50-plus volunteers helped turn the office spaces into a vibrant, exciting place.
“What’s really cool is I brought my kids with me so they can see the before and after,” Degnan added. “After we were done with the construction, I could feel their positive energy and their love for it. When they were able to witness it being all done, there was this happiness that was beaming from them.”
She said her 11-year-old can’t wait to hang out there with his friends.
One of those friends is Derek DeProspo, an 8-year-old from Selden who also has Down syndrome. His grandmother, Elizabeth Rahne of Selden, is GiGi’s new program director.
“It’s an incredible organization and has incredible mission,” she said. “It’s giving parents and families the support they need to help their children become the best they can be.”
Rahne said groups like the ones at GiGi’s Playhouse are important for new parents.
“It’s an overwhelming diagnosis,” she said. “You don’t know how much they’re going to progress or what they’ll able to accomplish.”
But Derek runs and plays with the kids inside the center — an inclusive space where kids who are neurotypical, on the autism spectrum or who have Down syndrome can play, dance, create and socialize with no judgment or fear.
“I’m so proud of what he’s able to do now,” she said. “I think people need to hear the story that our children do have some difficulties, but they can accomplish so much more than people think. We need to celebrate their uniqueness.”
Angelique Sternberger, of Port Jefferson Station, lost her 3-year-old son, DJ, eight years ago.
“When DJ was born, the doctors came to us and told us he had Down syndrome,” she said. “They always focus on the worst things possible, but it’s all about what these children can do.”
She joined GiGi’s Playhouse in 2017 in memory of him and is now the board secretary.
“It’s helpful to have a place where you can go if you need some assistance,” she said. “I wish I had a GiGi’s Playhouse when DJ was born.”
This April, DJ would be turning 12 and, looking back, Sternberger thinks he would be thrilled to know what his mom has helped accomplish.“I’m sure he would love it here,” she said. “He was such a social child … he was the mayor of his school, and he would love being able to interact with other kids.”
Run solely on donations and fundraisers, GiGi’s Playhouse is 99% volunteer based. The only paid employee is the site manager, who opens and closes every day.
Cirigliano said that people who want to donate can do so online at gigisplayhouse.org. He said that they will be highlighting donors on their front door every month to say “thank you” for making this all possible.
And the opening comes at a special time for the Down syndrome community: March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, and the Long Island chapter of GiGi’s Playhouse is officially opening its doors one day before. From 10 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. on March 20, a virtual grand opening will be streamed through Facebook and online.
Due to COVID-19, families who want to start using the achievement center’s services must schedule an appointment online.
“Children with Down syndrome like to follow their peers,” Sternberger said. “We want them to be able to socialize. So, come to GiGi’s and we’ll be there with open arms.”
GiGi’s Playhouse will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays. To view the hours of operation, visit gigisplayhouse.org/longisland.