A newly redesigned building sits on a heavily traveled stretch of road in Windsor Heights, a Des Moines suburb. GiGi's Playhouse is a lively spot where people with Down syndrome gain self-confidence.
The place was packed for the grand opening of the relocated Des Moines chapter of GiGi’s Playhouse. The founder of the local branch, Megan Christofferson, says she and other parents of children and adults with Down syndrome found a need for an "achievement center" in Central Iowa.
“We just wanted more," she says. " We believed in our children, we believed they were capable of more, and if we gave them more opportunity, they would reach their full potential.”
GiGi’s Playhouse is a national initiative launched in suburban Chicago by Nancy Gianni and named for her daughter. Christofferson became involved a few years after the birth of her son, Carsten, who showed early signs of Down syndrome. She says her first words to the doctor were, “how do we fix this?”
“At that moment I looked down at Carsten, who was in my arms, and he opened his beautiful almond-shaped eyes and looked up at me," she says. "That was the first time I kind of heard his voice and he said ‘Mama, they’re not here to fix me, I’m here to fix you,' and eight years later he’s still trying.”
Down syndrome is the result of a random error in cell division that creates an extra copy of chromosome 21. English physician John Langdon Down leant his name to it after he published the first accurate description of people with the syndrome in 1866. Christofferson considers it “just good luck” her son was born with 47 chromosomes instead of the normal 46.
“I’ve learned that it’s a gift." she says. "and I am so grateful every day that Carsten entered my life and totally changed the way my eyes see people and my heart sees the world, and even if I spent every hour of every day dedicated to paying Carsten back for all of the gifts he’s given me, it would never be enough.”
She has gone on to adopt a second son with Down syndrome, six-year-old Bo from China. At the revamped Playhouse, Carsten and Bo will have access to a wonderland of playground toys, basketball hoops and volunteer instructors.
“This area we have expanded to have five individual tutoring rooms," she says. "At any one time we'll be able to have one-on-one tutoring for literacy, math, and we’re also going to expand into handwriting.”
She says there are programs for adults with Down syndrome, as well, such as GiGi University where they hone communication skills and build resumes through work at an upstairs retail store. Even with all of the support available to the folks at GiGi’s, Christofferson says raising children with Down syndrome comes with its own form of stress.
“The hardest thing is the fear of the unknown," she says. "Even though Carsten’s and Bo’s adulthood is not here, of course it’s always in the back of my mind. I’m fearful they won’t be able to live the life they deserve.”
Megan Christofferson has overcome this nagging worry by throwing herself into advocating for Carsten, Bo and the hundreds of others with Down syndrome in Central Iowa.
“Individuals with Down syndrome have a lot of potential," she says. "You may have to slow down a little bit and take time and patience to appreciate their potential, but it’s there, and once you let them into your heart, you’ll never be the same.”