Gigi’s Playhouse Sugar Land Celebrates New, Larger Space To Serve People With Down Syndrome


Eight years ago, Ammie Blahuta began frantically searching the internet for answers, resources and help when her daughter, Sadie, was born with Down syndrome.

Blahuta, who lives in the Sugar Land-Richmond area, found resources, but they were on the other side of Houston or cost a lot of money. Then she heard about Gigi’s Playhouse, a national nonprofit organization that runs Down Syndrome Success Centers where people of all ages with Down syndrome receive free treatment and education.

Sonia Storer lived down the street from Blahuta and quickly became a champion in bringing the organization to Sugar Land. Gigi’s Playhouse Sugar Land opened in December 2015 in 1,500 square feet of office space.

Gigi’s now serves approximately 450 participants in Fort Bend County and surrounding areas. Families prenatally who learn they will have a child with Down’s syndrome to adults with Down’s syndrome decades older benefit from the programs.

Storer is Chairman of the Board of Gigi’s Playhouse Sugar Land and said the goal has always been to serve many families with Down’s syndrome because the need is so great: One in 700 babies in the United States is born with Down syndrome. , according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Friday, December 3, days before her sixth birthday, Gigi cut the ribbon for her new approximately 10,000 square foot center in Stafford, just off the Southwest Freeway. Gigi moved into the new location in May 2020 and started programming in September. Cutting of the ribbon has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So expansion is very important to us because, again, we were in a small building when we started and we weren’t able to serve the numbers we needed,” Storer said. “I think we were serving around 200 participants with Down syndrome. We were still able to increase that number with such a small location, but it really allows us, again, to create more programs, to have an impact on more attendees, to leverage our building.

Participants do everything from exercise to strengthen their abdominal muscles to artistic and musical creation to speech therapy.

Kathy Oujesky has brought her 30-year-old daughter, Kristi, to Gigi’s Playhouse since it opened and said she has grown in leaps and bounds socially. Kristi has made friendships and found a community to which she belongs. “She’s looking forward to it. And she went from, I don’t know, zero to 60. She’s improved so much: her social relationships, the way she presents herself, the way she is part of something, ”said Kathy.

Mainak Pandya, 47, has been attending the center since 2016. He said he enjoyed doing “fun stuff” like art and reading the most. His mother, Malvika, said he is more outspoken now and wants more from life.

Nicole LaSala is 29 and started at Gigi in 2015. Her mother, Annette, said she has improved her communication skills and been friendlier with others since being in the community with Gigi’s.

Global design firm Perkins & Will donated their time to create the new facility. Some of the features include a culinary classroom, playground, art and music room, private tutoring room, classroom for the Gigi University program that continually educates adults once graduates of public schools and offices. Because fitness and lifestyle are important components for participants, there is also a fitness center.

Helping the Down syndrome community, Storer explained, is important because there are many underserved families. She said the programs improve and change daily lives and that work is also valuable in promoting inclusion.

“Participants with Down’s syndrome are like you and me, and it’s important that we create acceptance,” Storer noted.

The national organization Gigi’s Playhouse was founded by Nancy Gianni about a year after the birth of her daughter Gigi with Down syndrome. Gianni decided she wanted to create a place that would reshape the look of those affected. Gigi is 19 years old now, and there are currently 55 Success Centers in the United States and Mexico.

As a non-profit organization, the Sugar Land Center operates through volunteers who work with its participants. Volunteering does not require any prior training, only a willingness to serve a community of brilliant children and adults.

Storer expressed his thanks to the donors and the Central Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce whose companies are supporting the organization in a number of ways and helping to raise awareness in the Fort Bend area.

Blahuta said Sadie is fortunate to be active and to have a mother who was able to find help for her, but many families affected by Down syndrome cannot. Now Gigi’s has a place to provide its free family oriented services. It even has a sitting area where parents can have a cup of coffee while their baby works on sitting up or using a spoon or their older child works on other skills.

“We are really very lucky that Fort Bend County and the greater Houston area have supported us like they have,” said Blahuta. “And, as Sonia mentioned, there are so many families there. And it will change their life. He changed mine. It changed our families.

To learn more about Gigi’s Playhouse Sugar Land or to donate or volunteer, visit www.gigisplayhouse.org/sugarland.

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