Paul and his wife Nancy are co-founders of Gigi’s Playhouse, which are Down syndrome achievement centers for individuals, like their daughter Gigi, who have Down syndrome. There are now more than 30 Gigi’s Playhouses across the country. Listen to Paul share his life with and commitment to his special daughter, Gigi.
Dad To Dad 6 – Paul Gianni And The Founding of Gigi’s Playhouses for Individuals With Down Syndrome.
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org that’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. Stories of fathers helping fathers.
Paul Gianni: As soon as you have someone with special needs, it’s amazing how you start seeing individuals with special needs.
Tom Couch: That’s Paul Gianni. David’s guest today. Paul and his wife Nancy, have four kids, including 15 year old Gigi who has down syndrome.
David Hirsch: It’s, it really opens your eyes. Your perspective changes.
Paul Gianni: Yes. Completely.
Tom Couch: Together Paul and Nancy opened a community center for families of kids with downs syndrome called Gigi’s Playhouse.
Paul Gianni: It’s a celebration. It’s a child. So that’s up to lifting. Lights are on, smiles going. Music is playing.
Tom Couch: Today. There are more than 33 Gigi’s Playhouses across the country.
It’s not just about what Gigi’s does for children and for families. It’s also what it does for communities. You know, you’re building a better world, a world of tolerance and acceptance.
For 21st Century Dads. This is the Special Fathers Network podcast stories. Fathers helping fathers. I’m Tom couch and our host is the founder of 21st Century Dads, a man who has dedicated decades of his life to increasing awareness on the importance of being a father, David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Being a father is very important to me. Being a good father means being a successful role model for your child, helping them be happier, more fulfilled and productive members of society. I’ve started a number of charitable organizations designed to increase the role of fathers. One of them, the Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs.
We’ve been interviewing some exceptional fathers of special needs kids, and we want to share their stories with you.
Tom Couch: So let’s get to it. Here’s David’s conversation with Paul Gianni.
David Hirsch: I’m here today with my good friend, Paul Gianni, who along with his wife Nancy, are cofounders of Gigi’s Playhouse. An international network of down syndrome achievement centers.
Paul, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the special fathers network.
Paul Gianni: Thanks for having me.
David Hirsch: You and your lovely wife Nancy, have four children, Franco age 20 Isabella aged 16, Gigi age 15 and Romania, age 20.
Paul Gianni: That’s correct.
David Hirsch: So let’s start with a little background. Where did you grow up?
Tell me about your family, including your siblings, your mom, your dad. Your grandparents.
Paul Gianni: I grew up on the Northwest side of actually Northwest suburbs of Chicago, and Desplaines to be exact, uh, my mom and dad there. I’m a first generation . My folks were from Italy and actually came, both came here and when they were 10 years old, and I’m like this true American success story, the students paved the goal that they came here for trying to make a buck a, I went to Notre Dame high school in Niles preparatory school there, and then I went to DePaul university. Did my undergrad there and as, yeah, I was, stayed here in Chicagoland area. I moved out to Barrington, South Barrington area, and then been married for 22 years. And, uh, yeah, it’s been an adventure to say the least. It’s fun.
David Hirsch: But when you were growing up, did you have siblings?
Paul Gianni: Yes, I had one sister.
Uh, her name was Giovanna. Uh, she, uh, unfortunately she passed away about 15 years ago. Uh, breast cancer. So that’s was unfortunate. But, um, yeah, so actually one of my daughters, uh, Romina is actually my niece that lives with us. We took her under our wings and she’s doing fantastic.
David Hirsch: Yeah. So you’ve stepped in and, uh, become a father figure.
Paul Gianni: Yeah, that’s exactly right. A full time dad, full time dad. Yeah.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s equally impressive. Um, so, uh, let’s talk about your parents. Um, they were born in Italy, immigrated to the United States. When was that?
Paul Gianni: Uh, my. Mom came here in 1956 and my dad came here in 1946 so they’ve been here a while and yeah, there was, the whole intention was actually my grandfather used to make cabinets and dressers and dining room sets for Marshall fields.
Oh wow. Back in the day. So he was, his intention was to make $10,000 and go back and retire in Italy. So they obviously, that never happened. They stayed here. And, uh, my dad manufactured furniture office suites for nationwide with his two other brothers, and yeah, they were pretty successful at it. So now they live in Florida.
Retired, obviously, and, uh, yeah, they would just go down here as often as we can and just try to enjoy the family unity there. There’s, I’m so used to growing up, I mean, the Sunday dinner at two o’clock every day, you know, every Sunday, it was very special. It’s very tight knit group, especially on my dad’s side.
He had a big family and, um, it was always about getting together and celebrating. You know, each other and each love for each other was just pretty special.
David Hirsch: So, um, we’re both your grandfathers involved in your life. Did you get to know them?
Paul Gianni: Yes, I, my mother’s side, actually, my grandmother and grandfather and mother said really helped us out because when my dad was started off his company with, took over from his dad, there were some tough times trying to really get a good foothold and get things going the way they want it.
So my mom worked as well, so while she was working there was oftentimes my grandparents would help out. So I spent a lot of time with my grandparents there, and they were really, it’s amazing how my grandfather was a really good role model.
I mean, he was retired. But he always wore a suit every day. Really. He’d wear a suit just to go to the grocery store. He was amazing. So, I mean, he was so, you know, just was pride himself on every little thing that he had in did.
David Hirsch: Yeah what a great role model. When I think about people getting dressed up, I think about people getting dressed up on Sunday to go to church.
Paul Gianni: Right, right. Not every day to do everything. Yeah. Every day he presses own jacket, his pants and everything. Wanted to look to the nines all the time. It was amazing.
David Hirsch: He was very concerned about making a positive impression on people.
Paul Gianni: He’s exactly right. Yeah. Yeah.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So let’s talk a little bit about your dad.
You mentioned that he was in the furniture business. Correct? And when you were growing up, think about when you were really young and then as you got to be a teenager and beyond, what type of relationship did you have with him?
Paul Gianni: He’d always like to joke around. He was, I’d go with him to his factory cause he’s a manufacturer that furniture.
On the South side of Chicago. They’re actually in the West side of Chicago. So it was such a big place that it was intimidating, was scary, and it was every night, didn’t have security ducks come in. So we’d always be there at late, at night till about six o’clock and he’d always say, watch out, because those dogs were coming at six 30 so he’d play a little gags on, we’d hide, they’ll try to just scare me a little, just any that we didn’t have fun, but in the end he’d always just have a little fun with us, with me and my sister, and just, um, take us out to dinner or just always looking for that family unity. Just looking over us, making sure that we were always taken care of.
David Hirsch: Sounds like he was involved in your life from the very beginning and still is.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. One thing, you know, I was, it wasn’t just that was given to us. Despite the them, we did have, you know, after things really went well for him, he could have easily have given us anything we wanted, but he always made us work hard for it. I mean, just to get, I remember in little legue just to get a mitt, I had to work like four Saturdays and do an inventory and the stock, I mean, I wasn’t doing really just the fact that I was there.
Um. Yeah. Just so I could get a mitt. A catchers mitt. Yeah. I mean, he went off to work for this, you know, some of the things that he valued.
David Hirsch: So it work ethicwas really important value and role model, that he played.
Paul Gianni: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, another example, I was 15 turning 16 years old. And he was, came in my room and says, well, what job you have lined up?
I’m like, I’m still 15 I can’t even get to the job. You have to drive me there. This is when you turn 16 and I want to make sure you have a job. So that day I remember this little hotdog stand and it’s still there. Actually in Desplaines. I got a job there. I go there. All right, I got a job. He’s like, what are you going to do?
They have any cleaning bathrooms and you know, cleaning the kitchen and stuff. He’s like, find a different job. You’re not doing that kind of job. I’m like, why? It’s honest work is like you can find something better. You’re going to high school ask the high school, and it was really good advice. The job placement office, the guidance counselors said there’s postings in the school there.
And he was right. There was a better job that I, that I found. But yeah, just, he was very disciplined in that respect. That working made you an honest individual and the product individual.
David Hirsch: So you mentioned you went to school at Notre Dame high school.
Paul Gianni: Yes, yes.
David Hirsch: Yeah. And. Then to college, where?
Paul Gianni: To DePaul university.
David Hirsch: And when you graduated, what was your focus then?
Paul Gianni: Well, my whole intention was always to become an attorney.
David Hirsch: Really?
Paul Gianni: Yes. So I went to law school for a semester and it was, it was pretty challenging, and I’m like, I really gave it my all. And I didn’t do as well as I thought I could do. So I’m like, this is pretty challenging.
So I said, I’m gonna try something else. So getting a little bit of real estate and mortgage business, and then from there at an opportunity to, uh, get down on, at the mercantile exchange, I started as a runner. I’ll never forget that day I was standing there. With the experience, and I’m sitting next to these two individuals.
One was a graduate of University of Chicago and the other one was from Harvard, and were we, all three of us were runners making $4 and 50 cents an hour. I looked at the guy next to me and I’m like, this can’t be possible. You know, college graduates, good experience. And he looked at me and this kid was maybe 20, 21, 22 years old.
He goes, trust me, it’ll be worth it. I was just, that was exactly what he said, and I worked my way up, you know, as an arbitrage clerk and then order a broker and then independent trader.
David Hirsch: So what year would that have been when you started at the floor of the work?
Paul Gianni: In 1991 it was in the summer of 91 yeah, I remember that first month being a runner.
I lost like 25 pounds just walking, and I wasn’t even that big, and I just constantly walking and running with, the obvious thing was paper.
David Hirsch: So you literally got into the ground level as a runner for the mercantile exchange, which doesn’t even exist anymore.
Paul Gianni: It doesn’t even exist. Right. Everything’s electronic now.
David Hirsch: This is the open Oak crime method that it used to be.
Paul Gianni: That’s exactly right.
David Hirsch: So, um, how many years did you do that?
Paul Gianni: Um, my last year was in 2010 when I left
yeah, 20 years. Yeah. It was, it was a wild ride. Big adventure. A lot of good stories and a lot of ups and downs, but it was, you know, they always say, would you do it again?
I definitely would. It was kind of like a high school atmosphere when you were making money. This game was interesting.
David Hirsch: It was a lot a guys atmosphere, wasn’t it? For the most part, it was most of the guys.
Paul Gianni: Oh yeah. Oh.
David Hirsch: Yeah. You wouldn’t want your daughters to be thrust in that environment necessarily?
Paul Gianni: No, no, no.
Just it’s just that, yeah. It was a guys guy type of atmosphere. Definitely.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, um, I remember we used to take people for tours, you know, uh, friends would come in from out of town and we used to work in the. Same building with the mercantile exchange. So that was sort of a treat to either go up to the observation deck and look down, or if you knew somebody’s actually gone before the exchange, and it was like this out of body experience that the people yelling and screaming and all this information swirling around.
So it makes sense for the type of work that you used to do. So let’s talk a little bit about your connection to the special needs community. On a personal level and then on a professional level. Um, I understand that Gigi your third child was born with two holes in her heart and down syndrome. Uh, what was going on in your mind when you first learned about the diagnosis?
Paul Gianni: It’s really interesting how that all came about and we had no idea. So there was, I think there was some ultrasounds and some screening, but we were completely, uh, held by surprise there. We had no idea. So I remember the neonatalogist had some key, I was concerned as some testing and she came to us and said, I think your daughter might have down syndrome, has some symptoms.
So I’m like, I don’t think so. I said, she looks just like her brother, and we actually convinced her that she’s second guessing herself, but ultimately the results came back that she did have down syndrome and I had no idea what the answer was. No idea. And I’ve, you know, I saw him, you know, with those, with the candy drives and things like that, and just occasionally, and it’s amazing when you’re not involved in that diagnosis or net situation.
You’re not, you’re not in tune with the people around you so much. As soon as you have someone with special needs, it’s amazing how you start seeing. Individuals with special needs. It’s, it really opens your eyes,
David Hirsch: your perspective changes.
Paul Gianni: Yes. Completely. So while we’re at the hospital, we left the hospital and then we found out that she had a hole in her, her two holes in her heart.
So the whole idea of down syndrome was thrown out the door. We didn’t really care. He just cared about her wellbeing. And so that gave us an opportunity to see her as an individual. And not worry about the diagnosis in the beginning. And she, we just saw her, she was more alike with the rent, with her siblings and everyone, you know, just a typical child.
She was different. And obviously, uh, you know, four months later she had to have the open heart surgery because, uh, the ASD, so there’s, I don’t know, I haven’t remember as ASD and VSD, one of them does not close, cause most of us, many of us were born with a hole in our heart and it just automatically closes.
But the top one. Did not. So then she had surgery. It was amazing. Four months she had surgery. But I remember saying to my wife that it’s amazing. You know, this is a special gift that, um, how much more special our kids will be. I’m much more caring and sensitive. Our kids will be. From this little angel that was given to us.
David Hirsch: So would it be accurate to say, Paul, that with the diagnosis, with a hole or holes in her heart that the downs were sort of secondary?
Paul Gianni: Oh, no. Without question.
David Hirsch: The most immediate issue is how we make sure that she’s healthy. Right. Because if you don’t have a strong card,
Paul Gianni: right. It’s exactly
David Hirsch: where we go from there.
Paul Gianni: Right. It’s amazing how that was put in. It’s the burner back burner down syndrome, and then once she got home, um, yeah. She, we had a great experience. Just the people come in to visit with people not knowing anything about special needs or any kind of disabilities. They often, they, I remember there’s some of the adults approaching the crib looking as if they were expecting something, like a creature or something, and then the first reaction looking up, beautiful.
She is, I go, what did you expect. You know, of course she’s beautiful. So, yeah. It’s amazing how just ignorance plays a big role in just to end in society in general.
David Hirsch: So, did you have any connection to the special needs community and understanding, uh, with, uh, before Gigi was born?
Paul Gianni: I did not. My wife did. My wife- we used to work with their mother, with her mother at that Clearbrook. I didn’t really matter. I was in a spray group and they would handle all types of special needs, some, um, educational stuff and just mentoring and things like that center.
David Hirsch: So she had some compassion and insights that most people would not have heard.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. She felt, she felt like she had a calling to have signed a child with down syndrome if she felt, because she had such a special bond. She loved it. So she felt like that. I think that. God said, here we go do something with this.
David Hirsch: Wow. I didn’t, I didn’t know that.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. It’s amazing.
David Hirsch: Well, it is a gift, right? Yeah.
And um, you know, maybe it doesn’t seem like a gift at the beginning because it doesn’t seem like they are. Everything’s normal. They’ve cut the number of toes and the fingers, and you know, all these different tests that they do when your child’s born. And you know, if it’s not a hundred percent, um, there’s somehow it’s less.
Right. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Paul Gianni: Right, right. It’s amazing how there’s a, I think there was a priest of ours said, you know. The Lord would not give you a child like this if he knew that you couldn’t handle it, embrace it and do something special with it,
David Hirsch: then you have to believe that.
That’s pretty powerful.
Talk about the first handful of years for Gigi and the impact on your family.
Paul Gianni: Uh, initially when we first started out with Gigi, I mean, my son, he was so good with Gigi. I mean to this day he’s, I mean, he’s amazing. And there’s four years difference. Yes. Four years difference in how he just would be so nurturing and taking care of her.
And the funny thing about it. Is my kids. They didn’t see her as any different until they started getting into grammar school. Like third, fourth grade, she started coming around and they’d come over into the at the house and they were looking at her, and then my son would say, well, what are you looking at?
What’s the matter with you? And then they’d be like, why are you staring at her for? He had no idea that he had no idea. They thought that she was just a normal kid. The initial years was pretty, pretty good. The kids saw her as just another kid. Yeah, the typical chat,
David Hirsch: so there weren’t any developmental delays then as it relates to.
Paul Gianni: No, there was some, I mean there were some things that we knew there was some chance. So we had our, we had some early intervention therapy in the beginning, which helped for muscle building and speech therapy. So we started that out of the gate really quick, which makes a big difference.
David Hirsch: Huge difference.
Paul Gianni: It’s, it’s like anything else. If you train and you, and you have the therapy behind you, it’s like a star athlete. You know, if you work on it, you’re gonna get the results from individuals down syndrome. They have lower muscle tone, so they have to work so much harder than we do. You know, just the ability just to get up in the morning, you know, their struggles.
And like I look at Gigi every day. And now she gets up and she smiles. But you know some of your worst days where you feel achy and sore. That’s just the typical day for her. She never complains because there’s always a challenge for her with lower muscle tone.
David Hirsch: Some good lessons there.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. Yeah. Great.
Yeah. If you’re ever down, if you’re ever like second guessing or down on yourself, just look at put into perspective how she is always smiling and always upbeat. And the challenge is she goes through every.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s pretty powerful. So talk a little bit about school. She is in a school environment, you know, same age as all the other kids.
Preschool, kindergarten, first grade.
Paul Gianni: So when we started out at, we wanted to put her at the appropriate school with their, cause, uh. Franco and Isabella went there as well at St. Anne’s and uh, she went there and started kindergarten. Everything was fine. And they actually had a little aid in the room for, which is really good.
And she, her reading level was just, it was higher than the reading level and the kids that were there as a result of our, did you just play house cause it, you just play house. They had. Yeah, the literacy program. So she was so involved in that. We were constantly working with her, uh, reading that her and her reading level was, I think, a first grade reading level at the time.
And it was unfortunate that some of the parents there were complaining. They didn’t want their children involved in that environment. Yeah. So it was really, it was shattering for my wife. She was second guessing everything. You know, she had some counseling with the priest and stuff and said, you know, it’s, it’s unfortunate that people are like that, but it’s just, you have to be stronger and make sure that you put her in an environment that she’s walking.
So we brought her to the public school and yeah. And actually it turned out a lot better because the aide. And she’s given there and the program that they have at the public school, we’re blessed in Barrington 220 that they have a really, it’s a really great school district.
David Hirsch: Well, it seems ironic really, that the parochial school, um, wouldn’t be a more inviting and welcoming environment and people would have a better understanding.
Paul Gianni: Well, the problem is. Uh, individuals with down syndrome and even our special needs, you really, they were, most of them were their diagnosis externally, you know, that you could see it with down syndrome. You see, you can’t help noticing something different, but it’s not fair because you don’t see the type of individual that they are, the inside.
You know, we have a local photographer here, Thomas Balsamo. He did a, a special piece and you know, just seeing who they are. I have a voice and you see the photographs, I believe they’re black and white photographs, and you see their faces and you see their eyes. Right. Can you see exactly how special they really are?
Really, really powerful photographs and the great, great piece on decide the voice gallery, it’s very powerful. Um, it’s a matter of awareness and acceptance, right? I think those are the two things that come to mind. Right? Um. And I think what you were talking about earlier is that, uh, there a certain level of ignorance that people have generally that’s not being derogatory against anybody individually, but just generally speaking, but their lack of understanding or awareness leads them to make some prejudgments about situations.
David Hirsch: And, Oh, it’s unfortunate, right? It’s not just kids being sort of. Me and out of ignorance, but adults, you know, having some judgment or lack of judgment.
Paul Gianni: Without doubt. I mean, the stereotype really stems from your parents, and then the child grabs on that and then it’s not, you know, it’s unfortunate. And that’s all through ignorance.
And then ignorance really. Breeds fear. And that’s all it is. It’s fear of the unknown and not sure what that is.
David Hirsch: So, um, let’s, uh, talk a little bit about what I would refer to as your professional experience now dealing with, uh, special needs community and specifically Gigi’s Playhouse. Um, and the great work that you’re doing with these 25,000 plus families in these 33 plus locations, right?
Not only here in the US now, but in Mexico. And. Continues to grow.
Paul Gianni: Imagine a world full of love, acceptance, possibility, a world full of inspiration where dreams come true, where families grow close, where everyone is allowed to be themselves to learn. And experience fun and joy from infants through adults.
We make a lifetime commitment to our families, Gigi’s Playhouse, down syndrome, achievement centers, and GT university. Visit us online at gigisplayhouse.org.
David Hirsch: You and Nancy are the cofounders of Gigi’s Playhouse, this international network of down syndrome achievement centers. Um, how did it start? What was your original vision?
Paul Gianni: When we first came home? Well after having Gigi, or her name is actually Guliana Gianni, so very nice to tell you. Yeah. So, and Italian is spelled Guliana with a G, not a J. And so Gigi the acronym, and that’s how Gigi came about. Uh, that’s a little factoid. But anyway, so we have support groups and parent groups.
So you have to go meet a family. So you can have, you have any questions on certainties. They’ll work with you. And this had this family lived in Palatine at the time, and this family was in Palatine as well. Get to be friends with them. They’re also friends with Skip, Cindy Allen Beck. I don’t know if you know who they are.
And, uh. That’s, that was how that was the roots, that family. Then family Skip another, some of the local families here in Barrington. We all sat down one night in my basement and we said, you and we should try to have this little community center for just all of us so we can network. Um, and then maybe have an opportunity to have some therapists come in and, you know, just doctors and just share the common bond.
And that, and that’s their location. We actually opened up an office in the States, our original one, and it was really an opportunity just to have families come together, um, and just share experiences, ideas, and opportunities for all parents and individuals in the community that had down syndrome.
David Hirsch: How many were there initially?
Paul Gianni: And that was one. And then three years later there was one in Plainfield and that was there.
David Hirsch: So there was one center
Paul Gianni: and there was another Hoffman estate.
David Hirsch: And then three years later, the second center, it was called
Paul Gianni: Gig’s Playhouse Too.
David Hirsch: So what I was curious to know how many families were taking advantage of the original Playhouse the first year or so.
Paul Gianni: The first year or so, there was probably like 50 or 60 families taking advantage of it, and now this location handles about 450 families. Yeah, it’s a pretty big network and that, you know, it was interesting because then the next location was in Rockford, Illinois. And then it was things were just seeing how things were going because we never thought of it as a franchise, if you will, reputable model, because we didn’t have that vision.
We just wanted to see something that was good for us in the community and good for Gigi, but the demand was huge because thanks to the internet and then things got out there with our website and people just searching. The great web. You find, you know this, Hey, there’s an opportunity here. So then local communities, families wanted to have something in their neighborhoods similar to this cause then we started building programs and as the programs got more robust, you’d saw the.
The actual demand come in looking for opportunities to have something like that in our neighborhood. So over the last five years is when it really took off because we got the replicable model that was very sustainable anywhere you go. And there was, there’s different levels that you have to know. The support structure has to be in place first.
You can’t just have one individual say, no, I want to open this up. And it could be a multimillionaire, but he doesn’t. If he doesn’t have. The band network of individual supporting people around him, then it’s really not the type of individual or location that we’re looking for. So there’s different levels that you have, two stages that you have to go through in order to become, uh, a Playhouse.
And actually we’ve never had a play house or like a McDonald’s. So that’s why that’s really take pride in that, because we want to make sure that. The community and family network is their net in that location.
David Hirsch: So if you just had a rattle off, what are the three or four criteria to stabbing some financial resources?
What would they be?
Paul Gianni: If the North, in order for you to have a Playhouse in your location? So one of the prerequisites, you have to have a coordinator on that location, and that’s a paid employee. So our programs are all free to all participants, so we don’t charge anything. So everything is all donations. The bulk of everything.
I’d say 90% of all funding is private donations and maybe 80 maybe 85% and 15% of it is corporate donations. You don’t receive any money from the government. So the only thing that’s paid is a staff member is a coordinator. So that’s where there’s always, our goal is always to have someone, their physical body.
So cause there’s was oftentimes people come in there who are so challenged that they are, you know, parents that they’re, they have no idea what just happened to them. Cause at, to be honest with you, it is a very intimidating experience when your child’s first realize that, that diagnosis.
So we’ve seen, uh, parents. I’ve seen men pacing in the parking lot back and forth and unsure if they want to come in or not. So one thing that we always make sure is that the coordinators there, they are greeted with, it’s a celebration. It’s a child. So that’s up to lifting it. There’s lights around, smiles going, music is playing.
And then there’s another thing is there’s a couch. So it’s like a warm, inviting atmosphere. At the Playhouse is that that college has to give them opportunity for them to sit down and take it all in. And another thing that we always, another prerequisite is that you have to have a stage in each location.
That stage is a place to showcase yourself. These little, these children now is going to get up on stage and just to show who they are. So that’s really important and give them their self esteem. It was a a celebratory reaction when we walked in and for the first time in six weeks, other than my immediate family, I had heard congratulations.
And that meant the world to me. The moment I sit down at the couch, it was like amazing coming to do this. I know that I’m not alone and I know that my son is gonna grow. And continue groin common here because this is why we need, this is what a little kid with Antonio needs.
David Hirsch: Um, so talk about Gigi’s university, which wasn’t there at the very beginning.
How did that evolve and what does that,
Paul Gianni: Well, like I mentioned earlier, as you know, there was a need as these kids are all getting older, cause we have some individuals that come there, they’re in their forties and it was a place that we want. Originally we thought of it as a place for little kids. Then we saw some adults coming in there and this we at the original location.
It was like a castle and a stage with the, with the, the kingdom in the back where they had the castle in the bank. And it was, that’s how it was starting. So it was very, very childlike. And so some of the adults were saying, well, we want, this is not a place for us. So. We cured a lot of programming and the setting to be more, uh, conducive to, uh, prenatal all the way through adulthood.
David Hirsch: Okay.
Paul Gianni: So we changed those programs. We had the literacy programs, uh, the math program. So now we have, it’s called the educational center, um, achievement center in these, or what do you have these literacy rooms? And then we hit, decided from there. Then what. So we need these individuals to, uh, be ready for jobs and just life in general.
You know, we’ll want them to be independent. So that’s how we started teaching university. So you have to, you have to be 21 years old. You have to be, you have to be admitted in there. Um. So, not everybody. Not everyone does. Yeah. Not everyone you have to have, if you have to meet certain criteria, you know, whether it be, uh, literacy skills, language skills, and then just, um, how you comport yourself in.
So ideally, we want to make sure that you could do well. Then we get you prepared at Juju university. We prepare you for the job force, ideally. Um, so it’s a 12 week program. It was a life skills program. There’s how, um, how the diet program, exercise program, um, interactions and how you interview, how to, uh, comport yourself in a daily atmosphere of a business atmosphere.
So. We have a graduation ceremony and then after that we do have what’s called hugs and mugs so they can intern and do it. The whole intention is to have the interaction, the customer interaction. No, we don’t want our child, our adults, our children to be, you know, baggers at a grocery store. Not that that’s a bad thing cause there is customer interaction there.
We want more from them, so we want them to be able to handle money. Um, and then have the dialogue with the customer interaction at the counter. Um, so we found that some of the job placement, some of, we’ve had individual individuals, uh, get placed at the senior center making, you know, $22 an hour with benefits.
Crazy, good stuff. Good stuff there. And it’s, it’s amazing how they, once they get at hugs and mugs, they don’t want to leave their cars. They love that. That interaction.
David Hirsch: Well, the hugs and mugs, it’s like a retail store.
Paul Gianni: It’s a retail store that sells merchandise. You could actually make customized mugs and glasses, which they do really well there.
And then there’s also, we also sell gelato and coffee. It’s a cafe. And the gelato was fantastic. This an individual from Italy and specifically, we found him. He was Oprah Winfrey’s a go to guy for gelato. He actually flies it to her or she comes and gets it. Well, yeah, .
David Hirsch: So as the Hugs and Mugs that each of the playhouses, or just the one here?
Paul Gianni: Uh, we’re starting to have a couple of them throughout the country. Uh, Minneapolis, there’s, uh, actually, it’s interesting. There’s one. There’s a group of individuals in Toronto, they just want the Hugs and Mugs store and nothing else.
So we’re entertaining that idea.
David Hirsch: That is very interesting.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. So yeah, that’s a, and eventually it’s an opportunity. It’s another opportunity to raise some funds for the Playhouse itself by, uh, signed the merchandise and e-commerce. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s pretty unique how they just love being here.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Well, thanks for sharing the information about Gigi’s Playhouse and an overview. Um, taking a step back, uh, what are some of the important takeaways that come to mind when you think about having a Down’s syndrome child?
Paul Gianni: Uh, the first thing that comes to mind, I would say is compassion. Patience. You know?
Yeah. I am a firm believer. As you get older, you get less patients and less tolerant, less tolerant. I mean that, you know, not to be cynical, but that’s why I think that’s why parents, uh, you know, you can’t have kids after a certain age. You just can’t have anymore. Because I think it’s part of the whole idea that you just less tolerance.
And this, uh. Allows me, or I think I have, allows us, my family just to get, just to stay tolerant. It really does. I mean, it’s, it keeps you grounded. It really is a gift. Um, just, yeah, the compassion piece. You see the, the, uh, the struggles. I see firsthand some of the struggles that she goes through every day.
And then just allows, creates empathy for and compassion for all individuals with special needs. Because you know, you could just get up every day and it’s like, fine, you might have some aches and pains. Oh, I got a little bit of arthritis, or my knees are cranking, my back hurts. Big deal. You can get up.
Just think of the people that can’t get up or you know are tied to a wheelchair.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It’s a daily reminder.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. Yeah.
David Hirsch: So is there a chance that these playhouses are going to be available to more than just down syndrome? I remember hearing that or talking about that previously.
Paul Gianni: So, yeah. Currently the Playhouse is, are open to anyone.
So we’ve had, we’ve had, uh, like, uh, functions. Or people come and they reserve it or utilize our space, uh, for autism, uh, CP and there’s, we’ve actually had like Friday friends. We have an event every, every other Friday, and then on Saturdays where we have all the individuals, all different diagnosis.
David Hirsch: Okay. So it’s not exclusively Downs, even though they’re known as.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. It’s not exclusive to that.
David Hirsch: But what advice can you share with dads or parents for that matter about helping a child with disabilities reach their full potential?
Paul Gianni: Uh, ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. And, uh, really try to embrace what God has given you. I try to always look at it as, it’s not woe is me. It’s, you know, try to look at the silver lining of everything cause there’s always a silver.
David Hirsch: Why did you agree to be part of the Special Fathers Network and serve as a mentor father?
Paul Gianni: Well, you know, it’s, it’s pretty simple. You know, I deal with so many fathers with that Gigi’s, and I talk to them all the time. You know, we have, we have some of them really get involved really and above with their, with their children.
And they mentor them and really work with them. Others get involved with other fathers and it’s really nice little network and you just, it’s good to share these experiences and I learned a lot from just looking at all the fathers in general. I had these at our functions and just at the playhouses themselves.
And seeing how the interactions with just other other individuals or other families that are touched by down syndrome more just around kids, it’s pretty amazing.
David Hirsch: So as it turns out, Paul, you probably have more experience than most of the dads that are already in the fathers network, Special Fathers etwork, just because of the work you’ve been doing and the number of relationships that you’ve formed over the years, mostly with other towns, families, towns, dads, for that matter. Yeah.
So thank you for your willingness to take a call from a dad that you might not have previously been in contact with and share your experience. Because I think that when I look back on the fathering experience I’ve had over the last 27 years.
Obviously my dad and my grandpa’s played an important role, but I learned a lot by just talking to other dads and optimally, you know, drafting behind their experiences, emulating the ones that got it right, and then living vicariously through the ones that maybe made some mistakes. Don’t make the same mistakes.
That has a direct impact on your kids, right? Your kids are going to be a little bit better off as a result of you being a little bit more in tune or dialed into making more of the right decisions. So is there anything else you wanted to say before we wrap up?
Paul Gianni: I just, I just want to say one thing to all the dads out there listening. You know, there’s always, there’s always challenges, no matter what. Lifestyle was a challenge. So I always look at it as, you know, if I had everyone, if Julianna was a typical child, let’s say, you know, lifestyle wouldn’t be that simple. You know, I, I worry now, it will say my kids were like my, my two kids just kept, you know, they just went back to school, to college, but when they were here.
You know, I, I stay up all night waiting for them to come home. And even when they come home, I still hear that door opening and closing. I have no idea what’s going on. Sometimes I just can’t physically stand around, so I always have to worry. So no matter what you do, no matter what happens, you’re always going to work.
And you know, I get some, you know, some solace that knowing that Gigi, when she goes to bed, she’s, you know, I know she’s comfortable and she’s safe and she always wants to be with me. And that, and that’s comforting to me. You know, that despite the fact that there’s some challenges, but the comfort and knowing that she’s always my little girl off greatly outweighs all those, you know, those nervous nights and those crazy moments when I’m not sure what my other kids are doing.
And I know that she’s around and that love it.
David Hirsch: And that’s fabulous. So if somebody wanted to get some information on Gigi’s Playhouse, where would they go?
Paul Gianni: Well, you could, you could visit any, we have locations all throughout the country and you could just go on, on the internet, look up Gigi’s Playhouse, find one locally in your neighbor, or you’re near near you, I should say.
And then also, uh, come by, come come by. If you’re in Chicago, , visit our, one of our six locations here around the, uh, Illinois. There’s one near Wrigley field. There’s also one in aeronautics headquarters here in Hoffman estates, and buy a gelato. Come on by.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Thank you again, Paul.
Paul Gianni: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
David Hirsch: As a reminder, Paul is just one of the dads who is agreed to be a mentor father, as part of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers, raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor, father or. Or seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation of your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
Thanks again, Paul.
Paul Gianni: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Father’s Network podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers.
The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio, and again, to find out more about the Special Fathers Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org, 21stcenturydads.org.