GiGi's Playhouse

GiGi’s Playhouse’s Journey to Michigan

New center set to provide people with Down Syndrome free specialized programs

By Kris Harris & Ashourina Slewo

Wafa Arabo has been working tirelessly over the last 23 years to ensure that her daughter Mary grew up just like her older sister Rio, and younger brother Reno.  Mary was born with Down syndrome; Wafa has made sure she was treated just the same as both of her siblings.  “When she was born, I was a young mother at the time and didn’t know a thing about Down syndrome,” explained Arabo.  “I mainstreamed her since she was young.  She did dancing with regular children, and she was exposed to everything that her brother and sister were exposed to.”

Mary graduated from Andover High School with a certificate equivalent to a high school diploma. Following high school, Mary attended a vocational school in which she was part of internships at retail stores like T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Soon after, however, Mary aged out of the vocational school and was left wondering what the next step would be.

The next step came in the form of the culinary school, Rising Stars Academy. Founded in 2012 by Mark and Deb Prentiss, the culinary school is for students ages 18-26 with special needs. Rising Stars Academy provides hands-on experience needed to find employment.

“She really loved it, but it was far away and I wasn’t able to take her the second year,” said Arabo. “She now has an internship at Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield.”

Arabo noticed that as Mary got older, programs and services for children with special needs became scarcer. This presented a problem that Arabo could not stop contemplating. “I was one of those Chaldean people that got married and was a young mom and I had three children in four years,” Arabo. “I didn’t have a care in the world, I came from a big, sheltered family, so this was a big, big change and I think I was in denial.”

These realizations for Arabo, are where GiGi’s Playhouse comes into play. GiGi’s Playhouse, founded by Nancy Gianni, strives to change the way people view Down syndrome. The organization provides free therapeutic and educational programming to individuals with Down syndrome as well as their families and continuously working to develop new programs that will benefit participants.

Participating in GiGi’s Playhouse would allow for participants to develop a job-like routine in a welcoming setting, without the added stress of having to pay for the services. “She hasn’t had a home, with a routine, where she can do the same thing over and over, where she has a job like anyone has,” said Arabo. “Almost every program, we have to pay for it and not all of us can afford every single thing.”

Without a single GiGi’s Playhouse in Michigan, Arabo has taken on the hefty task of bringing the organization to Michigan. Arabo must first raise enough funds to find a place for GiGi’s Playhouse to be homed. “We need to raise money, the fashion show that I put together was a kick off to that,” said Arabo. “It raised awareness and it was significantly more successful than we anticipated and that was a blessing for us.”

Recently, Arabo put together another event in an effort to bring GiGi’s Playhouse to Michigan. This event, the Believe in Our Build Celebration, is where Arabo hoped the last of the funds needed will come in. Believe in Our Build Celebration was held at the Lingenfelter Collection in Brighton on June 10.

Car enthusiast, Ken Lingenfelter, is opened the doors to his collection of antique automobiles, valued upwards of $50 million, in an effort to help raise money and further the efforts of the campaign. “We’re hoping that will raise a lot of money.”

While the hope is that the Believe in Our Build Celebration is the final push in order to obtain the needed funds, there are still a number of ways to contribute to the campaign. Items such as sofas and kitchen cabinets are needed in order to furnish the building that will be home to GiGi’s Playhouse. Monetary donations can also be made at www.gigisplayhouse.org/detroit.

While many look away from the problem, Arabo faces these issues head on and is adamant about talking about Down syndrome and changing perceptions. “God does not pick special parents for special children, he simply takes ordinary, imperfect people and gifts them with his greatest treasures and therein creates special parents,” said Arabo. “I am one of the many ordinary people that are privileged to have a child with Down syndrome.”