Gainesville’s Difference Makers
Make up by Kara Winslow, Hair by Sabrina Johns
It only takes one to make a change – our Difference Makers have truly shown that. These individuals dare to dream for a brighter Gainesville every day. With generous hearts, helping hands and unyielding energy, they have taken their corner of the world and changed it for the better. When Mika Vuto found there wasn’t any place for her daughter with Down syndrome to grow and learn, she brought that place to Florida. When Ron Farb learned of common barriers to cancer treatment, he rose above all obstacles. When a new dress code policy crippled struggling families, Danny Veilleux mobilized the community to outfit thousands of children for success.
GIGI’S PLAYHOUSE GAINESVILLE
GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville is gaining speed to be the first Down Syndrome Achievement Center in Florida. With an ambitious dream, Mika Vuto spearheaded the creation of the center that will open its doors summer 2015.
President and Founder Vuto first learned of the center shortly after her daughter Mia was diagnosed at birth. Desperate to learn about opportunities for Mia, she searched the Internet.
GiGi’s Playhouse kept coming up in Vuto’s searches. The achievement centers are supportive communities for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. GiGi’s Playhouse’s educational and therapeutic-based programs are offered free of charge in centers across the United States and Mexico.
“I thought that would be really neat. I wish we had one of those here,” she said.
GiGi’s stayed in the back of Vuto’s head as Mia grew. About a year ago, Vuto grew confident that she could build an achievement center in Gainesville from the ground up, using her business and Master’s in Special Education experience. “Somebody’s got to do it,” she said. “I’m just going to do it.”
At the time, the closest GiGi’s Playhouse was located in Atlanta. As the first GiGi’s in Florida, Vuto hopes that the Gainesville location will serve families from all over the North Central region.
GiGi’s stood out to Vuto because it embraces the whole family. Vuto said that raising a child with Down syndrome is like raising any typical child, just with a little more to do. She believes families need a haven to share their dreams and fears, especially during diagnosis.
In particular, diagnosis can be a trying time. Many people only know the stereotypes associated with Down syndrome, said Vice President Lilly Bell.
“When you get married and have a child, you have all these expectations – My child’s going to be beautiful. My child’s going to be smart,” Bell said. “When you get that Down syndrome diagnosis, you don’t think those things.”
GiGi’s sibling and parental support programs help break the stereotypes and grow the families’ confidence. “It’s good to have a place like GiGi’s Playhouse when you’re going through the emotional processes,” Vuto said. “You have people to hold you up.”
Bell said her journey with 3-year-old Elyssa has challenged her to see beauty in everything. She hopes GiGi’s will be a place for families to work through their initial fear and celebrate their family. “Now I look at her and I wouldn’t change anything about her,” Bell said. “She is perfect just the way she is.”
Prenatal diagnosis support is just one of the many services GiGi’s provides. GiGi’s offers more than 30 programs, including walking and crawling, literacy, social skills and career development. All programs are backed by research and are tailored to the way individuals with Down syndrome learn, emphasizing sensory and visual elements. GiGi’s Gainesville will initially launch select programs based on the needs of the area’s families.
GiGi’s is also a place for adults with Down syndrome. The Gainesville location will offer social events and eventually a progressive career skills program called GiGi University.
Spreading awareness is another huge component of the GiGi’s Playhouse mission. “We want our children to be accepted and included,” Vuto said. “That all comes through awareness.”
GiGi’s has received phenomenal community support through monetary, time and in-kind donations. Vuto also credits the Board of Directors for being integral in transforming the idea of bringing GiGi’s Playhouse to Gainesville into a reality. The group just hosted their biggest fundraising gala yet in March named Believe in the Build.
With the donation push from the gala, Vuto and her team are currently on the search for the center’s permanent location – set to open this summer. Vuto hopes that the center will serve as a model for future Florida locations and will inspire other families to open up GiGi’s Playhouses in their areas.
“It just takes the one. Then, they can touch it. They can feel it,” she said. “They go – I need this in my community.”
Vuto said it’s often difficult to contain her excitement about the center’s progress. GiGi’s Playhouse is her passion, and she wants everyone to know about the center. “When I meet just one mom or family that reaches out to us, it makes me want to cry. That’s what it’s about,” she said. “Of course I want it for my child, but I think about the other families out there and I want it for them too.”
Vuto said that 5-year-old Mia is her inspiration. Having a daughter with Down syndrome has changed her perspective on everything, she said.
“It opens your eyes to a different level of beauty… The dream that you had for that child is a different journey now,” Vuto said. “The challenge is to embrace that and take that path in a positive manner, which I think we’ve done embracing GiGi’s Playhouse.”
To learn how you can support or participate in GiGi’s Playhouse Gainesville, please visit gigisplayhouse.org/gainesville.