By Genevieve Kyle

Board member Frank Sawyer on the light that shines through GiGi’s NYC.

GiGi’s Playhouse gives to those who don’t typically receive. Serving individuals who have Down syndrome, “one of the largest chromosomal disabilities, yet, one of the least funded,” GiGi’s Playhouse stands strong as a network with over 50 locations in the United States, Mexico, and over 200 inquiries to expand globally. GiGi’s Playhouse thrives through their creation of achievement centers, all formed to help those who walk through their doors to develop ways to curate a life full of success and fulfillment. In honor of our Human Issue cover star, Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down Syndrome, Mission chose to donate $10,000 to GiGi’s NYC.

In the below interview, former board president Frank Sawyer discusses the beauty that lies within GiGi’s NYC. He opens up about the center’s programs, how he was drawn to the organization, what the future of GiGi’s NYC looks like, and how we can continue to break down the stigmas associated with Down Syndrome.

Genevieve Kyle: What inspired the creation of GiGi’s NYC?

Frank Sawyer: Tracy Nixon and Debbie Morris created GiGi’s NYC. After giving birth to two daughters with Down syndrome, Laura and Sophia, the two had a vision to create a place where their daughters would be able to socialize, learn and make lifelong friendships. Thus, in 2012 GiGi’s NYC was launched as an affiliate to GiGi’s Playhouse Inc.

GK: What are some of the main programs that the organization focuses on?

FS: GiGi’s NYC empowers individuals with Down syndrome to realize their fullest potential, and to build skills that are necessary for success in school, work, and their community. We believe in nourishing a person’s body, brain, and soul. GiGi’s NYC programs offer therapeutic, educational, social, and creative arts programs, special events year-round, and our speaker series. All of these are provided at no cost to our participants or their families.

GK: In what ways has GiGi’s NYC grown over time?

FS: When GiGi’s New York City opened its doors in Harlem nine years ago it was the only NYC organization that was solely dedicated to the development of individuals with Down syndrome of all ages, and still is. GiGi’s NYC serves 1,000 people with Down syndrome and their families, representing almost 10 percent of the NYC Down syndrome population of approximately 11,000.

GiGi’s NYC has continued to focus on the growth of the community, by increasing the variety of programs we offer for individuals with Down syndrome. We have transformed our face-to-face programs for online delivery at the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and last year through the pandemic we were able to host our most successful gala to date; streaming live online – breaking all of our Gala fundraising records.

GiGi’s NYC has additionally launched the Community Chorus. This program helps to give a voice to those who are often not heard. Our chorus is composed of those with Down syndrome and their family and friends. We have also created the GiGi’s NYC Gratitude Art Committee Project, installing our artists’ work in businesses across NYC. When businesses donate funds for GiGi’s NYC, their business colleagues and customers have the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of our artists with Down syndrome. Société Générale was our first investor sponsoring the Gratitude Art Committee Project.

GK: What are some of the most important ways that others can get involved with, or donate to, GiGi’s NYC?

FS: As we continue to grow, we are continuing to diversify our donor base to ensure the financial future of GiGi’s NYC. The best way to get involved through volunteering would be to visit our website, and click the volunteer button. To donate you can go to the same link, and click the donate button. Without the generosity of donors and partners, and our Volunteers, none of what we do would be achievable.

GK: What inspired you to become involved with GiGi’s NYC?

FS: Eight years ago my brother-in-law Peter, who has Down syndrome, moved from Florida to live with my partner Joe and I, in NYC. My partner and I would look for activities in NYC that Peter could participate in with people like him and different from him. When we found GiGi’s NYC, we all recognized that Peter was in a place unlike any he had experienced before. He immediately felt at home and began to engage, learn, and achieve.

From the wonderful experience my family had with GiGi’s, I then became a volunteer, joined the GiGi’s NYC Board of Directors, and was elected Board President. I served for four years and continue to be a board member.

GK: Through your time at GiGi’s NYC, what lessons have you learned that have impacted your life?

FS: As inspired as I am by those with Down syndrome, I am equally inspired by the family members who are fully committed to improving the lives of their loved ones with Down syndrome, and those in the Down syndrome community. This continuous love and support has helped me to lead with kindness, and to truly understand the importance of advocacy.

GK: What do you think is the biggest stigma centering around individuals who have Down syndrome?

FS: The presumption that is held regarding incompetence and the inability to achieve.

GK: How can these misconceptions be changed?

FS: We need to support the fulfillment of each person with Down syndrome’s unique potential. Our community is diverse, and holds a unique beauty and this is something that should have the ability to be celebrated accurately through every media channel possible.

GK: What achievements are you most excited to see this coming year for GiGi’s NYC?

FS: For this coming year, we will be hosting a robust roster of speakers who will bring their expertise on many topics, relating to Down syndrome that are important to our community. We are especially excited that Jane Providenti, GiGi’s NYC Board of Directors Co-President, will conduct a workshop on Post-Secondary Opportunities for Individuals with Down syndrome. We are also offering our summer “camp” programs as a hybrid virtual and face-to-face experience, as we begin to enter this post-pandemic world. And two of our participants, Troy and Kaiya, will be attending Syracuse University this fall.

Image credit: T21