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Friday, April 12, 2024

First GiGi’s Playhouse in Florida opens in Gainesville

<p>Addie Dalton, a board member for Gigi’s Playcenter, a nonprofit organization for children with Down Syndrome, snips a ribbon at the center’s grand opening on Oct. 11, 2015. The center provides a space for children and families with down syndrome to build confidence through learning, performing and socializing.</p>

Addie Dalton, a board member for Gigi’s Playcenter, a nonprofit organization for children with Down Syndrome, snips a ribbon at the center’s grand opening on Oct. 11, 2015. The center provides a space for children and families with down syndrome to build confidence through learning, performing and socializing.

Mika Vuto’s daughter, Mia, was born with Down syndrome.

It was a complete shock.

"It went from total excitement to tears," Vuto said.

With very little information from the hospital, Vuto went to the Internet, a research process she said was scary and overwhelming.

"Looking back, nobody should have to go through that alone," Vuto said.

Eighteen months ago, Vuto and other parents of children with Down syndrome got together in a living room in Williston to start working on a project to help raise awareness for individuals with the genetic disorder.

Vuto watched Sunday afternoon as the ribbon was cut in front of that project, now finished — the first chapter of GiGi’s Playhouse in Florida. The nonprofit organization, which serves as a support center for individuals with Down syndrome and their families to meet and help each other, is now open next to Midnight Cookies on 34th Street.

Although there are about 25 GiGi’s Playhouse centers across the nation, this center is the first to open in Florida.

"We are making history," Vuto, who now serves as president, said as she held back what she called happy tears.

She said the center will help families with a child with Down syndrome gain confidence as they raise their children.

"You have to let go of the dreams you had of your child, and create and embrace a new journey," Vuto said.

As the ribbon fell down on a stage inside the building, people cheered with tears in their eyes.

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Chris Waite said he planned to visit the center with his daughter, 8-month-old Erin Marie.

"I just think it’s nice to have a place with a supportive atmosphere," he said.

While Vuto and the other staff at GiGi’s Playhouse are still trying to raise the $100,000 needed to fully run the organization, the building will still host free programs for all individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

"We don’t want cost to be a barrier," Vuto said.

As of now, programs will focus on getting to know the individuals and their needs. But Vuto said programs will eventually include research-based tutoring in math and reading.

Most of the staff will be volunteers, including members of a UF service sorority, Delta Nu Zeta.

"I couldn’t have done this alone," Vuto said. "It takes a community for GiGi’s Playhouse to be successful."

Paul Hintze, the treasurer at GiGi’s Playhouse, said he hopes he will be able to raise awareness while working there.

"We are all more alike than different," Hintze said.

Donations are accepted through the GiGi’s Playhouse website at gigisplayhouse.org/gainesville under "Donate." The organization is also hosting their second annual golf benefit Saturday on UF’s Mark Bostick Golf Course. Registration for the event is also available on the GiGi’s website.

Addie Dalton, a board member for Gigi’s Playcenter, a nonprofit organization for children with Down Syndrome, snips a ribbon at the center’s grand opening on Oct. 11, 2015. The center provides a space for children and families with down syndrome to build confidence through learning, performing and socializing.

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