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.
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.
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 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 Down syndrome, called GiGi’s Playhouse.
Nancy Gianni: GiGi’s Playhouse is just an overwhelming sense of acceptance and love when we walk through these doors. I know our children are going to live a happy and successful life, because of GiGi’s.
Paul Gianni: They will walk, they will run, they will play. They go to school. They will be happy.
Nancy Gianni: Everybody gives hugs. They feel like, “Wow, we can do this.
Paul Gianni: It’s a celebration. It’s a child. Lights are on, smiles going. Music is playing.
Tom Couch: Today there are more than 33 GiGi’s Playhouses across the country.
Nancy Gianni: 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.
Tom Couch: For 21st Century Dads, this is the Special Fathers Network Podcast, stories of 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 of 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, age 16, Gigi, age 15, and Romina, 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 in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, in Des Plaines to be exact. I’m a first generation Italian. My folks were from Italy, and actually both came here when they were 10 years old. I’m like this true American success story, the streets paved with gold that they came here for, trying to make a buck.
I went to Notre Dame high school in Niles, a preparatory school there, and then I went to DePaul University. I did my undergrad there. And I stayed here in Chicagoland area. I moved out to the South Barrington area. Then I have been married for 22 years. And 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. Her name was Giovanna. Unfortunately she passed away about 15 years ago with breast cancer. And one of my daughters, Romina, is actually my niece who lives with us. We took her under our wings, and she’s doing fantastic.
David Hirsch: So you’ve stepped in and become a father figure to your niece.
Paul Gianni: Yeah, that’s exactly right, and a full time dad for her.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s equally impressive. So let’s talk about your parents. They were born in Italy, immigrated to the United States. When was that?
Paul Gianni: My mom came here in 1956, and my dad came here in 1946, so they’ve been here a while. Actually my grandfather used to make cabinets and dressers and dining room sets for Marshall Fields, back in the day.
David Hirsch: Oh wow.
Paul Gianni: So his intention was to make $10,000, and then go back and retire in Italy. Obviously, that never happened. They stayed here. And 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. We just go down there as often as we can and just try to enjoy the family unity there.
Growing up, I was so used to the Sunday dinner at two o’clock every Sunday. It was very special. It’s very tight knit group, especially on my dad’s side. He had a big family, and it was always about getting together and celebrating each other. The love for each other was just pretty special.
David Hirsch: So, were both your grandfathers involved in your life? Did you get to know them?
Paul Gianni: Yes. On my mother’s side, my grandmother and grandfather really helped us out, because when my dad was starting his company, which he took over from his dad, there were some tough times trying to really get a good foothold and get things going the way they wanted. So my mom worked as well, and while she was working, my grandparents would often help out. So I spent a lot of time with my grandparents there.
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. He’d wear a suit just to go to the grocery store. He was amazing. He would pride himself on every little thing he had and 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.
David Hirsch: Not every day to do everything.
Paul Gianni: Every day he pressed 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: That’s exactly right.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So let’s talk a little bit about your dad. You mentioned that he was in the furniture business. 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. I’d go with him to his factory. He manufactured that furniture on the south side of Chicago, or actually on the west side of Chicago. So it was such a big place that it was intimidating, it was scary, and every night they’d have security dogs come in.
So we’d always be there late at night, till about six o’clock, and he’d always say, “Watch out,” because those dogs were coming at 6:30. So he’d play a little gags on me. He’d hide, then try to just scare me a little. We’d have fun. But in the end he’d always have a little fun with me and my sister. He would take us out to dinner. And he was always looking for that family unity. Just looking out for 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, it wasn’t just always given to us. 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, I remember in little league, just to get a mitt, I had to work like four Saturdays and do an inventory. I mean, I wasn’t doing it really, but just the fact that I was there, so I could get a catcher’s mitt.
David Hirsch: So a work ethic was a really important value and role model that he played.
Paul Gianni: Exactly. I mean, another example, I was turning 16 years old. And he 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.” He says, “Well, when you turn 16, 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 Des Plaines. I got a job there.
I go, “Dad, all right, I got a job.” He’s like, “What are you going to do?” “They have me cleaning bathrooms and 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.” He’s 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 found. But yeah, he was very disciplined in that respect, that working made you an honest individual and a productive individual.
David Hirsch: So you mentioned you went to school at Notre Dame High School.
Paul Gianni: Yes, yes.
David Hirsch: 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 pretty challenging. 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’m gonna try something else.” So I got into a little bit of real estate and mortgage business, and then from there I had opportunity to go down to the mercantile exchange.
I started as a runner. I’ll never forget that day. I was standing there with my 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 all three of us were runners, making $4.50 an hour.
I looked at the guy next to me, and I’m like, “This can’t be possible. 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.” That was exactly what he said. And I worked my way up, as an arbitrage clerk and then order broker and then independent trader.
David Hirsch: So what year would that have been when you started the work?
Paul Gianni: It was in the summer of 1991. I remember that first month being a runner. I lost like 25 pounds just walking, and I wasn’t even that big. I was just constantly walking and running, and everything was paper.
David Hirsch: So you literally got in at the ground level as a runner for the mercantile exchange, which doesn’t even exist anymore.
Paul Gianni: It doesn’t even exist. Everything’s electronic now.
David Hirsch: So, how many years did you do that?
Paul Gianni: My last year was in 2010 when I left the floor, so yeah, 20 years. It was a wild ride. Big adventure. A lot of good stories, and a lot of ups and downs. And 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 mostly guys.
Paul Gianni: Oh yeah.
David Hirsch: Yeah. You wouldn’t want your daughters to be thrust in that environment necessarily?
Paul Gianni: No, no, no. It was a guy’s type of atmosphere. Definitely.
David Hirsch: I remember we used to take people for tours. 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, you can actually go on the floor of the exchange. It was like this out of body experience, with the people yelling and screaming and all this information swirling around. So I have a little 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. I understand that Gigi, your third child, was born with two holes in her heart and Down syndrome. 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. We had no idea. I think there were some ultrasounds and some screening, but we were completely taken by surprise. We had no idea. So I remember the neonatalogist was concerned, did some testing, and she came to us and said, “I think your daughter might have Down syndrome. She 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 was second guessing herself. But ultimately the results came back that she did have Down syndrome. And I had no idea what Down syndrome was. No idea.
I saw them with those candy drives and things like that, and just occasionally. It’s amazing when you’re not involved in that diagnosis or in that situation, 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 really opens your eyes,
David Hirsch: Your perspective changes.
Paul Gianni: Yes. Completely. So we left the hospital, and then we found out that she had two holes in her heart. So the whole idea of Down syndrome was thrown out the door. We didn’t really care. We 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. She was more alike with her siblings and everyone, just a typical child.
But she was different. And obviously, four months later she had to have open heart surgery because, the ASD—I don’t remember if it was the ASD or VSD—one of them did not close. Because 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 old, and she had surgery.
But I remember saying to my wife that it’s amazing. “This is a special gift. I’m much more caring and sensitive, and 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 Down syndrome was sort of secondary?
Paul Gianni: Oh, without question.
David Hirsch: The most immediate issue is how we make sure that she’s healthy. Because if you don’t have a strong heart, then….
Paul Gianni: Right. It’s exactly right.
David Hirsch: ….where we go from there?
Paul Gianni: It’s amazing how that put Down syndrome on the back burner. And then once she got home, we had a great experience. Just the people coming to visit, people not knowing anything about special needs or any kind of disabilities. I remember some of the adults approaching the crib, looking as if they were expecting something like a creature or something, and then their first reaction, looking up, was, “Look how beautiful she is.” I go, “What did you expect? Of course she’s beautiful!” So, yeah. It’s amazing how ignorance plays a big role in society in general.
David Hirsch: So did you have any connection to the special needs community, or understanding of it, before Gigi was born?
Paul Gianni: I did not. My wife did. She used to work with her mother at Clearbrook, out in Rolling Meadows. And they would handle all types of special needs, some educational stuff and just mentoring and things at that center.
David Hirsch: So she had some compassion and insights that most people would not have had.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. She felt like she had a calling to have a child with Down syndrome, because she had such a special bond. She loved it. So she felt that God had said, “Here you go. Do something with this.”
David Hirsch: Wow. I didn’t know that.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. It’s amazing.
David Hirsch: Well, it is a gift, right? And maybe it doesn’t seem like a gift at the beginning, because it doesn’t seem like everything’s normal. You count the number of toes and fingers, and all these different tests that they do when your child’s born, and if it’s not a hundred percent, then somehow it’s less. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Paul Gianni: Right. I think it was a priest of ours who 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: Initially when we started out, my son was so good with Gigi. I mean to this day he’s amazing.
David Hirsch: And there’s four years difference?
Paul Gianni: Yes, four years difference. And how he just would be so nurturing and taking care of her. And the funny thing about it is my kids didn’t see her as any different until they started getting into grammar school, like third, fourth grade. They’d come over at the house, and they would look at her, and then my son would say, “Well, what are you looking at? What’s the matter with you? Why are you staring at her?” He had no idea. He thought that she was just a normal kid. The initial years were pretty good. The kids saw her as just another kid. Yeah, as a typical child.
David Hirsch: So there weren’t any developmental delays then as it relates to being Downs?
Paul Gianni: No, there was some. So 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.
David Hirsch: Which makes a big difference.
Paul Gianni: Huge difference. It’s like anything else. If you train, and you have the therapy behind you, it’s like a star athlete. If you work on it, you’re gonna get the results. Individuals with Down syndrome have lower muscle tone, so they have to work so much harder than we do. Just the ability just to get up in the morning, they struggle.
And like I look at Gigi every day, and how she gets up and she smiles. But you know on some of your worst days where you feel achy and sore—that’s just the typical day for her. She never complains, but there’s always a challenge for her with lower muscle tone.
David Hirsch: Some good lessons there.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. If you’re ever down, if you’re ever second guessing or down on yourself, just put into perspective how she is always smiling and always upbeat, and the challenges she going through every day.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s pretty powerful. So talk a little bit about school. She is in a school environment, same age as all the other kids. Preschool, kindergarten, first grade.
Paul Gianni: So when we started out, we wanted to put her at the parochial school, because Franco and Isabella went there as well, at St. Anne’s. And she went there and started kindergarten. Everything was fine. And they actually had a little aide in the room for her, which is really good.
And her reading level was higher than the reading level of the kids that were there, as a result of our GiGi’s Playhouse. Because at GiGi’s Playhouse they had a literacy program. So she was so involved in that. We were constantly working with her on reading, that her reading level was, I think, at first grade 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. So it was really shattering for my wife. She was second guessing everything. She had some counseling with the priest, who said, “It’s unfortunate that people are like that, but you have to be stronger and make sure that you put her in an environment where she’s welcome.”
So we brought her to the public school, and actually it turned out a lot better, because of the aide she’s given there and the program they have at the public school. We’re blessed in Barrington 220 that it’s a really great school district.
David Hirsch: Well, it seems ironic, really, that the parochial school wouldn’t be a more inviting and welcoming environment and people would have a better understanding.
Paul Gianni: Well, the problem is individuals with Down syndrome, and even all special needs, most of them where their diagnosis is exterior, you could see it. With Down syndrome, you can’t help noticing something different. But it’s not fair because you don’t see the type of individual they are on the inside.
We have a local photographer here, Thomas Balsamo. He did a special piece on just seeing who they are, “I Have a Voice.” You see the photographs, I believe they’re black and white photographs, and you see their faces and you see their eyes. And you see exactly how special they really are. Really, really powerful photographs, and the great, great piece on “Decide the Voice” gallery.
David Hirsch: It’s very powerful. It’s a matter of awareness and acceptance, right? I think those are the two things that come to mind. And I think what you were talking about earlier is that there is a certain level of ignorance that people have generally. That’s not being derogatory against anybody individually, just generally speaking, but their lack of understanding or awareness leads them to make some prejudgments about situations. And, it’s unfortunate. It’s not just kids being sort of mean out of ignorance, but adults 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 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, let’s talk a little bit about what I would refer to as your professional experience now, dealing with special needs community and specifically GiGi’s Playhouse, and the great work that you’re doing with these 25,000 plus families in these 33 plus locations, not only here in the US now, but in Mexico. And it continues to grow.
Nancy 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 Gigi’s 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. How did it start? What was your original vision?
Paul Gianni: When we first came home after having GiGi—or her name is actually Guliana Gianni
David Hirsch: A very nice Italian name.
Paul Gianni: And it Italian we spell Guliana with a G, not a J. And so G-G is the acronym, and that’s how GiGi came about. That’s a little factoid.
But anyway, we have support groups and parent groups. So you have to go meet a family, and if you have any questions, any uncertainties, they’ll work with you. And we lived in Palatine at the time, and this family was in Palatine as well. We got to be friends with them. They’re also friends with Skip, Cindy and Allen Beck. I don’t know if you know who they are.
But that was the roots—that family, then Skip, and some of other the local families here in Barrington. We all sat down one night in my basement, and we said, “You know, we should try to have this little community center for all of us, so we can network, and then maybe have an opportunity to have some therapists come in, some doctors, and just share the common bond.
And in that 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, and just share experiences, ideas, and opportunities for all the parents and individuals in the community that had Down syndrome.
Gigi Gianni: I am Gigi Gianni.
Nancy Gianni: And I’m Nancy Gianni.
Gigi Gianni: I love to go to school to see my friends.
Nancy Gianni: Gigi likes to hang out at the Playhouse a lot. She has a lot of fitness programming. She also does a lot of academic programming. She’s in one-on-one tutoring in both literacy and math, and she also gets speech therapy while she’s here.
David Hirsch: How many were there initially?
Paul Gianni: That was one, and then three years later there was one in Plainfield.
David Hirsch: So there was one center in Hoffman Estates, and then three years later, the second center.
Paul Gianni: It was called GiGi’s Playhouse Too, T-o-o.
David Hirsch: So what I was curious to know is, how many families were taking advantage of the original Playhouse that first year or so?
Paul Gianni: The first year or so, there was probably 50 or 60 families taking advantage of it. And now this location handles about 450 families. Yeah, it’s a pretty big network. And it was interesting, because then the next location was in Rockford, Illinois. And then we were just seeing how things were going, because we never thought of it as a franchise, if you will, a replicable 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, thanks to the internet. Things got out there with our website, and people just searching the great web. “Hey, there’s an opportunity here.” So then local communities and families wanted to have something in their neighborhoods similar to this. So then we started building programs, and as the programs got more robust, you saw the actual demand come in, people looking for opportunities to have something like that in their 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’s different levels that you have, but the support structure has to be in place first. You can’t just have one individual say, “I want to open this up.” And it could be a multimillionaire, but if he doesn’t have the 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 are different levels, two stages that you have to go through, in order to become a Playhouse.
And actually we’ve never had a playhouse feel. We’re like a McDonald’s. And we really take pride in that, because we want to make sure that the community and family network is there in that location.
David Hirsch: So if you just had to rattle it off three or four criteria for establishing some financial resources, what would they be?
Paul Gianni: In order for you to have a Playhouse in your location? So one of the prerequisites is you have to have a coordinator to run that location, and that’s a paid employee. 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. Or maybe 85% and 15% is corporate donations. We don’t receive any money from the government. So the only thing that’s paid is a staff member who is a coordinator.
So our goal is always to have someone there, a physical body. Because oftentimes people come in there who are challenged, parents who have no idea what just happened to them. Because, to be honest with you, it is a very intimidating experience when your child first receives that diagnosis.
I’ve seen men pacing in the parking lot back and forth, unsure if they want to come in or not. So one thing that we always make sure is that the coordinator is there, and they are greeted with, “It’s a celebration. It’s a child.” So it’s uplifting. The lights are on, smiles going, music is playing.
And then another thing is there’s a couch. So it’s like a warm, inviting atmosphere at the Playhouse. That couch gives an opportunity for them to sit down and take it all in. And another prerequisite is that you have to have a stage in each location. That stage is a place to showcase yourself. These children, they always want to get up on stage and just show who they are. So that’s really important, and it gives them their self esteem.
A mom: It was 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.
A dad: The moment I sat down on the couch, it was amazing coming to this. I know that I’m not alone, and I know that my son is gonna grow, and continue growing, coming here. Because this is what we need. This is what a little kid with Down syndrome needs.
David Hirsch: So talk about GiGi University, which wasn’t there at the very beginning. How did that evolve and what does that do?
Paul Gianni: Well, like I mentioned earlier, there was a need as these kids were all getting older. Because we have some individuals who come there who are in their forties. Originally we thought of it as a place for little kids. Then we saw some adults coming in there at the original location. It was like a castle and a , with the kingdom in the back, where they had the castle in the back. And that’s how it was started. So it was very, very childlike.
And so some of the adults were saying, “Well, this is not a place for us.” So we changed a lot of the programming and the setting to be more conducive to prenatal all the way through adulthood.
David Hirsch: Okay.
Paul Gianni: So we changed those programs. We have the literacy programs, the math program. So now it’s called the achievement center, where you have these literacy rooms. And then we decided from there, “Then what?” We need these individuals to be ready for jobs and just life in general. We’ll want them to be independent.
So that’s how we started GiGi University. So you have to be 21 years old, and you have to be admitted in there. Not everyone gets in. You have to meet certain criteria, whether it be literacy skills, language skills, and then just how you comport yourself in it.
So ideally, we want to make sure that you could do well. Then at GiGi University we prepare you for the job force, ideally. So it’s a 12 week program. It was a life skills program. There’s the diet program, exercise program, interactions and how you interview, how to comport yourself in a daily business atmosphere.
We have a graduation ceremony, and then after that, we do have what’s called Hugs and Mugs so they can intern. The whole intention is to have the customer interaction. We don’t want our child, our adults, to be baggers at a grocery store. Not that that’s a bad thing, because there is customer interaction there.
We want more from them, so we want them to be able to handle money, and then have the dialogue with the customer interaction at the counter. So we’ve had individuals get placed at the Sears center making $22 an hour with benefits. Crazy, good stuff. Good stuff there. And it’s amazing how once they get at Hugs and Mugs, they don’t want to leave there, because they love that interaction.
David Hirsch: Well, Hugs and Mugs is like a retail store, isn’t it?
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 we also sell gelato and coffee. It’s a cafe. And the gelato is fantastic. There’s an individual from Italy who makes it. When we found him, he was Oprah Winfrey’s go-to guy for gelato. He actually flies it to her, or she comes and gets it.
David Hirsch: So is Hugs and Mugs at each of the playhouses, or just the one here?
Paul Gianni: We’re starting to have a couple of them throughout the country. Actually, it’s interesting. There’s one 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: So yeah, and eventually it’s another opportunity to raise some funds for the Playhouse itself, by selling the merchandise and e-commerce. It’s pretty unique how they just love being there.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Well, thanks for sharing the information about GiGi’s Playhouse and an overview. Taking a step back, what are some of the important takeaways that come to mind when you think about having a Down syndrome child?
Paul Gianni: The first thing that comes to mind, I would say, is compassion. Patience. I am a firm believer, as you get older, you get less patient and less tolerant. I mean that, not to be cynical, but I think that’s why parents can’t have kids after a certain age. You just can’t have them anymore. Because I think it’s part of the whole idea that you just get less tolerant. And this allows me, or I think it allows us, my family, just to stay tolerant. It really does. I mean, it keeps you grounded. It really is a gift.
The compassion piece. You see the struggles. I see firsthand some of the struggles that she goes through every day. And then just creates empathy for and compassion for all individuals with special needs. Because 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 cranky, my back hurts.” Big deal. You can get up. Just think of the people that can’t get up or are tied to a wheelchair.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It’s a daily reminder.
Paul Gianni: 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 Playhouses are open to anyone. So we’ve had functions, or people come and they reserve it or utilize our space, for autism, CP. And we actually have “Friday Friends.” We have an event every other Friday, and then on Saturdays, where we have individuals with all different diagnoses.
David Hirsch: Okay. So it’s not exclusively Downs, even though they’re known as Down Achievement Centers.
Paul Gianni: Yeah. It’s not exclusive to that.
Nancy Gianni: Here they instill that there is no “my child will never….” They will always support you to make sure that all of the dreams that you have for your child are fulfilled.
Gigi can’t quit her diagnosis. That differentness is never going away. She has to deal with it every day, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for them every day.
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: Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. And 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, “Try to look at the silver lining of everything,” because there’s always a silver lining.
David Hirsch: Why did you agree to be part of the Special Fathers Network and serve as a mentor father?
Paul Gianni: Well, it’s pretty simple. I deal with so many fathers at GiGi’s, and I talk to them all the time. We have some of them get involved really with their children. And they mentor them and really work with them. Others get involved with other fathers. It’s really nice little network.
And it’s good to share these experiences. I learned a lot from just looking at all the fathers in general at our functions, and just at the Playhouses themselves. Seeing how the interactions with other individuals or other families that are touched by Down syndrome, or just their 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 Special Fathers Network, just because of the work you’ve been doing and the number of relationships that you’ve formed over the years, mostly with other Downs families, Downs dads, for that matter.
Paul Gianni: Yeah.
David Hirsch: 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 grandpas played an important role, but I learned a lot by just talking to other dads, and optimally 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 want to say one thing to all the dads out there listening, there’s always challenges, no matter what. Lifestyle was a challenge. So I always look at it as, if Guliana was a typical child, let’s say, life still wouldn’t be that simple. I worry now. Like my two kids just went back to school, to college. But when they were here, I’d stay up all night waiting for them to come home. And even when they come home, I 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 worry. And I get some solace that knowing that when Gigi goes to bed, I know she’s comfortable and she’s safe, and she always wants to be with me. And that’s comforting to me, that despite the fact that there’s some challenges, the comfort and knowing that she’s always my little girl greatly outweighs all 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 I 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, we have locations all throughout the country, and you could just go on the internet, look up GiGi’s Playhouse, find one locally in your neighborhood…or near you, I should say. If you’re in Chicago, come by and visit one of our six locations here. There’s one near Wrigley Field. There’s also one in our headquarters here in Hoffman Estates. Come on by, and I’ll buy you a gelato.
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 has 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 are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stcenturydads.org.
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.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to this Special Fathers Network Podcast, stories of fathers helping fathers. The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio. Again, to find out more about the Special Fathers Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org.