This Nonprofit Produced 4,000 Hours of Video So Kids With Down Syndrome Can Learn From Home

June 2, 2020

By Karen Knapstein(opens in new tab), contributor via the Underground Group 
 5-minute read

In short: 

  • For GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that supports kids with Down syndrome and their families, the coronavirus meant cutting in-person services and canceling events during an important fundraising season. 

  • Accelerating a plan to expand digital offerings means GiGi’s can still connect while everyone stays at home. 

  • Virtual fundraisers helped make up for some of the organization’s losses related to COVID-19, while hundreds of new families discovered GiGi’s via its online offerings.

GiGi’s Playhouse started 17 years ago, soon after founder Nancy Gianni’s daughter GiGi was born with Down syndrome. The nonprofit’s 48 “playhouses” around the country and in Mexico provide free support to kids with Down syndrome and their families, including services like one-on-one tutoring and speech and physical therapy. 

GiGi’s, like so many other organizations, had to shut its doors at every location in March. For Gianni, the shutdown meant making an enormous change from in-person to online services in just 10 days.

Meeting needs virtually

GiGi’s had already been gearing up to increase its online offerings by evaluating a learning management system (LMS) and building an app. Hit with the sudden need to accelerate the project, the team chose GoToMeeting as a virtual meeting platform and launched a new portal(opens in new tab) on its national website.

Then, on March 26, it officially launched GiGi’s at Home(opens in new tab), which provides both live and on-demand programming and makes the learning resources and activities usually accessed at GiGi’s centers available via a single online hub. 

“We have been multitasking in a way we’ve never done before,” said Gianni of the project. “These families [we help] are now home, with a 24/7 diganosis. It was a complete shift from what we were doing; it was what we had to do.” 

“We have been multitasking in a way we’ve never done before. It was a complete shift from what we were doing; it was what we had to do.” 

GiGi's Playhouse made an online portal that serves up activities like at-home cooking classes. 


A new kind of GiGi’s

Children with Down syndrome are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus(opens in new tab) because of conditions such as sleep apnea that commonly accompany the syndrome. So, many families have taken especially stringent precautions, including maintaining home isolation.

GiGi’s at Home provides a semblance of normalcy. 

? The new, on-demand library currently includes 4,400 hours of free therapeutic, educational and career development programming divided into six age groups, all recorded by GiGi’s volunteers since the shutdown. 

Many GiGi’s programs use set curriculums, which volunteers adapted for easier online participation.

“Nothing was pre-recorded before this, but we had solid curriculums, teaching guides and program materials in place, which was a great start,” Gianni said. “Then, we set up a safe platform for our national program leads to go live.”

“This was not easy for them,” she added, since “they were all used to one-on-one interaction.”  

Kids’ reactions to the programs were motivating. The people GiGi’s serves “need routine, [and] when they saw their GiGi’s program on the computer and then heard ‘their’ familiar GiGi’s song, they were instantly engaged,” Gianni said.

The GiGi’s at Home portal also includes lesson plans and activities that families can do on their own. 

? The portal also hosts some 28 live programs weekly, which allow families to interact with GiGi’s volunteer leaders from both the national office and local playhouses.

These volunteer-led sessions include activities such as yoga, music, speech and math, as well as exercises that support the development of motor skills, social skills and language. All live sessions are conducted via GoToMeeting, which helps ensure they are secure, Gianni said. They’re now recorded, so the 30,000 kids that GiGi’s serves across the continent can access them on-demand. 

The 30,000 kids that usually attend GiGi's 48 playhouses can now access them online.


Reaching new audiences

Gianni said she is thrilled with participation levels so far, as well as the level of support GiGi’s at Home offers. The portal has also allowed the organization to reach more children than usual. In one virtual, physical therapy-based fitness class, GiGi’s at Home welcomed 60 kids from 14 states. 

? The portal saw 50,000 visitors in its first week, and 308 new families signed up to access GiGi’s resources for the first time.

Gianni gave an example of a GiGi’s member from Detroit who can now access his familiar playhouse virtually.

“He has access to all of our programming,” she said. “He’s making fried rice in the kitchen. He's also going to be getting one-on-one tutoring in math. He has all of these learning tools — and all of these new friends. His mom says he has never been busier in his life.” 

Figuring out finances

All services via the new portal are free for families, just as they are in-person at GiGi’s playhouses, though donations are encouraged.

COVID-19 is putting the centers’ business model to the test, however. In a typical year, about 75% of the donations GiGi’s receives in March and April — some $2.5 million — come from events. However, more than 50 of GiGi’s springtime fundraising galas had to be canceled this year. 

? In response to these event cancellations, the organization's national leadership worked with local playhouses to hold virtual events. 

The organization also received donations from some of its key supporters and legacy donors, who proactively reached out to offer financial support that helped get GiGi’s at Home up and running. Some of the centers applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program(opens in new tab) or Economic Injury Disaster(opens in new tab) loans from the government.

Overall, though, the live event cancellations were “detrimental to our playhouses,” Gianni said. 

With GiGi’s at Home running smoothly, she’s turning her attention to traditional fundraising. The team is gearing up for a virtual walk, run and ride event called Step to Accept(opens in new tab) on June 6. The event will be powered via platforms including One Cause(opens in new tab) for registration and peer-to-peer fundraising and the Strava fitness app(opens in new tab) for logging participants’ steps, which GiGi’s hopes will total 7 million. The organization is using its website and social media presence to promote the event, which will be livestreamed.

That fundraiser, along with GiGi’s new offerings, are bright spots amid social distancing, per Gianni.

“It's amazing what such a horrible thing has done to bring people together in other ways,” she said.

As the GiGi's team works remotely, staff and volunteers have recorded thousands of hours of programming.


Reopening GiGi’s

As the country begins to reopen state by state, GiGi’s is getting ready. Leadership is building a comprehensive reopening plan that includes “local community opening criteria,” Gianni said.

“Each playhouse [team] will be required to undergo training so they know the baseline minimum criteria that we have as an organization to open, including cleaning standards, sanitizing stations and personal protective equipment,” she added.

“Each playhouse [team] will be required to undergo training so they know the baseline minimum criteria that we have as an organization to open." 

Throughout reopenings, GiGi’s will “continue to offer virtual programming for several months, as we know that with our population, many are at higher risk and will take more time before they feel comfortable coming to a public place.”

And even after the playhouses reopen, Gianni plans to “continue to serve many families that do not have a GiGi’s Playhouse virtually” in some capacity. What at first seemed like an insurmountable obstacle has allowed the organization to serve hundreds more families than it was just a few months ago — a major win in terms of mission.

As Gianni puts it, “there is a silver lining here.”

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