TINLEY PARK — With rows of stylish kitchen cabinets and a washer and dryer nearby, the new home for GiGi's Playhouse in Tinley Park bears more than a passing resemblance to an upscale apartment.
Those features are part of an expansion of services for GiGi's, which assists individuals, both children and adults, with Down syndrome and their families.
Since 2014, GiGi's had been in the historic Fulton House, 16800 S. Oak Park Ave., in Tinley Park, and on Monday begins programs at its new location in Park Center Plaza, southwest of Harlem Avenue and 159th Street, also in Tinley Park.
Work began in the spring on retrofitting an existing commercial space, with a kitchen and laundry area that will be incorporated in new programs, GiGi Prep and GiGi University, to provide adults age 22 and older with "a curriculum that encompasses the whole individual," said Diane Husar, founder of the local Playhouse.
Programs will include a focus on healthy eating and food preparation, job skills, academics, laundry skills and fitness, she said. It's geared toward adults who've aged out of programming that is designed for children and teens.
The space, nearly 4,000 square feet, was designed to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, with lower countertops and sink in the kitchen that can be accessed by someone in a wheelchair, Husar said.
"It's really pretty awesome," Husar said of the new facility.
Just off the kitchen are two large, heavy wood tables and benches built by members of Orland Park Boy Scout Troop 318 and overseen by Michael Perino for his Eagle Scout project. They were delivered to the Playhouse in April.
"(Perino) wanted to do something to benefit the Playhouse," Husar said, but the project had to be portable because plans were in motion to relocate the Playhouse.
GiGi's in Tinley Park is part of a national nonprofit network of similar facilities that, according to the organization's mission statement, seek to "change the way the world views Down syndrome" and empower individuals with Down syndrome and their families.
Based in Hoffman Estates, GiGi's was founded by Nancy Gianni and named for her daughter who was born in 2002 and diagnosed with Down syndrome. GiGi's now boasts some 40 "Down syndrome achievement centers" in the U.S. and Mexico.
Husar began looking into establishing a GiGi's Playhouse locally after her son, Luke, now 11, was born and diagnosed with Down syndrome. She turned to friends and family -- her brother and his wife were part of her original board of directors -- and enlisted the help of others, including a children's librarian and a retired preschool special education teacher.
Not a school or care facility, GiGi's offers services to children and adults such as reading and math tutoring, speech therapy and fitness classes, relying on donations and fundraising events, such as a 5K run. None of the approximately 250 families who participate in tutoring programs or other services is charged a fee.
The goal of the Playhouse is to ensure that families have the resources "for their children to be successful and thrive as an adult," Husar said.
Near the Playhouse entrance and off the kitchen is the "Welcome Couch," where parents who've received a diagnosis of Down syndrome in a child can "sit, observe and process" what takes place at the Playhouse, Husar said.
"When new moms and dads come in they are petrified, but then you can see the fear fade," she said.
Husar opened the first local GiGi's Playhouse in September 2013 in a former Oak Forest church that the city owned at the time, but a year later relocated to the Fulton House. The two-story home was purchased by John Fulton in 1858 or 1859, according to the Tinley Park Library.
Apart from being squeezed for space needed to expand the Playhouse's programs, the home's steep and narrow staircase was a challenge for some program participants, said Husar, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher.
Items such as toys and books made the move from the Oak Park Avenue location to the new location, which had previously been a salon in the retail center, adjacent to a Firestone auto repair shop. Pulled from storage and installed in the new home is a custom-made performance stage that had been at the Oak Forest location.
GiGi's Playhouse had suspended programs at the Oak Park Avenue location for a month during the transition to the new space, Husar said.
The Playhouse's lease for the two-story home expired at the end of August, but "we had not passed final inspection" by the village at the new site, she said. Tinley Park allowed the Playhouse to move into the new space but it couldn't provide any services there until the inspection had been completed, she said.