At Gigi’s Playhouse, the mission is to change the way the world views Down syndrome and to send a global message of acceptance for all. At Special Olympics, individuals with intellectual disabilities experience inclusion through the power of sports. Special Olympics North Carolina (SONC) initiated its partnership with Gigi’s Playhouse through their Raleigh location and continues that relationship through its Charlotte location today.
Working toward similar goals of acceptance and inclusion, Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte and Special Olympics Mecklenburg County have partnered to provide Special Olympics Young Athletes programming.
Special Olympics Young Athletes is an early childhood play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities, ages 2 to 7 years old. In search of a facility to house this program in the Charlotte area, SONC Mecklenburg County Director, Rachel LoCurto, contacted Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte, an achievement center for individuals with Down syndrome offering free therapeutic, educational and career training programs. With 55 locations in the United States and Mexico, their organization is making a real impact on families, schools and communities.
“I am a volunteer literacy tutor with Gigi’s Playhouse,” explained LoCurto. “They have a great facility and I noticed that… We complement each other really nicely. A lot of our athletes go to Gigi’s Playhouse and a lot of Gigi’s Playhouse participants compete with Special Olympics.”
On Saturday mornings, Special Olympics Young Athletes hosts a session at Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte, engaging participants in activities, sport and social exercises. An opportunity for both children with and without intellectual disabilities to interact, a Special Olympics Young Athletes volunteer leads the hour-long session.
“This is a great opportunity to provide a service for our participants with Down syndrome, but also to get engaged with the local community as well,” explained Roy Courtney, Gigi’s Playhouse Executive Director. “It’s been a win-win for everyone.”
LoCurto is actively involved in Gigi’s Playhouse’s programming outside of Special Olympics. As a volunteer literacy tutor, she works with participants via Zoom, reading books and completing literacy activities. One of the 14-year-old students she regularly works with through Gigi’s Playhouse is a Special Olympics Mecklenburg County athlete. These programs have helped to construct support networks for families and individuals across North America, starting at a young age.
“We follow the life cycle of a young person with Down syndrome, giving families with Down syndrome a family to be a part of,” said Courtney. “We try and connect them with other families who have gone through this as an opportunity to feed understood and supported.”
Special Olympics Young Athletes’ Saturday morning sessions are an offering of Gigi’s Playhouse Charlotte in addition to group and one-on-one programs, completely led by volunteers, like LoCurto. As the partnership between Special Olympics Young Athletes and Gigi’s Playhouse continues, Courtney anticipates positive growth for both organizations.
“I’d love to see more opportunities to bring Special Olympics into the playhouse or to expose our participants to the benefits of Special Olympics,” said Courtney.