We recently spoke with Lizz Maxwell from Gigi’s Playhouse. The HLF grantee discusses what Gigi’s Playhouse is, what it does for the community, and how it uses the HLF grant funding to upgrade and start new projects.

Q: Tell us about Gigi’s Playhouse.

Lizz Maxwell: So, Gigi’s Playhouse Cleveland is a Down Syndrome achievement center. We are one of 57 lighthouses across the network across the U.S. and Mexico. We were the 28th lighthouse to open back in January 2016. 

The first Gigi’s Playhouse started in 2003. So, the growth from one Playhouse to 28 and then from 28 to 57 in just seven years has been amazing. The growth and the impact far and wide across the U.S. and Mexico has been immeasurable. 

We serve here at Gigi’s Playhouse Cleveland, over 500 families in Northeast Ohio. We provide free therapeutic educational career development programs. The amazing part about our programs is that it’s all research-based. It’s all purposeful, research-driven and it’s all at no cost to the families. 

We don’t let cost be a barrier, not just to participation but to achievement. And I think that the most impactful part is that our families can come in from far and wide. We pulled families as far east as Erie PA and out in Lake County, Ashtabula County and then as far west as Toledo or Clinton and then down into the Medina area. And it’s just an amazing reach that we have. 

And yeah, our families get to have that place. You know when Nancy Gianni, the founder of GiGi’s Playhouse, started it all back in 2003 for her daughter Gigi, that’s where the namesake comes from. She knew that there needed to be a place, a brick and mortar place, for families to go, for our participants to go not just to learn and grow but to be empowered. 

You know that empowerment is so huge no matter who you are. You know, whenever I like to share about GiGi’s Playhouse I talk about that empowerment. You know, we all can speak to the impact of people in our lives, believing in us, what that’s meant to us. And so having, you know, having this place and having this incredible community at the Playhouse where our families can go. And having a GiGi’s family, if you will, to believe in you, and to connect and celebrate, and no matter what part of the journey you’re on, has been so impactful. We make that lifetime commitment.

We’re there from prenatal diagnosis, to adulthood, nobody ages out, we don’t say, “Oh, you’re 18, you’re done. Thanks for coming.” It’s a lifetime commitment. We remain by their side throughout their whole journey. So, it’s quite amazing to think that there’s a place that can offer those free programs.

And I can’t leave out our amazing volunteers that make it happen. We are 99% volunteer-run. We offer about 20 programs, from therapeutics, and educational backgrounds. And to have these volunteers come in and commit their lives, whether they come once a week or once a month. 

They’re the ones that make this Playhouse so successful.


Q: I didn’t know that it was so far and why that’s so amazing. And that it’s free for the families and that you have said 99% volunteers?

Lizz Maxwell: We run out of about 80 volunteers a month. So we’ve had 70 to 80 volunteers a month. And, you know, I thank Mary and I can’t leave her out of that. She’s our operations manager, and she just started last month. She started as a volunteer and she has a music therapist background.

And the message is the impact that it’s made in her life. But in all of the volunteers, like, you know, they, every single one of them has said that “when I started coming to GiGi’s, I wanted to make a difference. I thought, okay, let me make their lives better.”

But the opposite happens where our volunteers number one don’t want to leave, they want to continue being a part of this. But what they end up seeing is that when the opposite happens there, the impact that they have, or that participants have on their lives is immeasurable. They don’t want to leave. 

Like I said, they have a place. It’s because they have a place too that they can be a part of and it’s their program that they run or that they assist with, or they come in for tutoring, and it’s their family that they connect with. And to see the relationships come from that has been one of the best parts of the job. 


Q: Why were you looking for a grant for Gigi’s?

Lizz Maxwell: So, GigiFit is one of our incredible programs that is specifically designed for people with Down Syndrome that is an all exercise and nutrition based program from infants to adults. We have duties for infants, other kids, teens and adults, and the amazing part about this program is that it’s research-based for people with Down Syndrome so it focuses on joint laxity, core strength, trunk control, focuses on balance, improving balance for our friends with Down Syndrome who have low muscle tone. 

So, sitting in a chair like you and I are doing, you know if it would be almost comparable, like if we were sitting on an exercise ball and needing to be really still. And so, really working on engaging all those muscles is something they do every day. So, they’re working that much harder than you and I to sit in a chair, to swim in a pool, to learn to ride a bike or to stay focused at school. 

And so, it’s important to us that we can have a program like GigiFit, where it breaks it down over the 15-week session. They can learn these skills, these purposeful progressions, these movements, and not just in a group setting. And be a part of a team where they’ve, you know, they’re rubbing their GiGi shirt, their water bottles, their bags, but what’s great is they’re going home with this information, with their logs, with their movement cards. 

And we’re equipping the whole family with what that looks like. How can we continue working with James or Olivia, or whoever it might be, and what does that impact translate to? Well, it translates to the classroom where they’re able to focus longer, they’re able to last longer throughout the day. You know, having low muscle tone and hypotonia really involves more breaks, you know, “okay, I’m gonna sit down and take a break.”

And they’re learning to self-advocate, the right to speak up and to know what their limits are. But at the same time, it’s also having those high expectations that, you know, we’re going to continue moving forward, we’re going to move that goal forward, based on that individual. So, one person’s goal is going to look different than the other, and that’s okay. But we want to keep striving them forward, keep pushing them forward, and being in front of them to be able to reach whatever success is in their life, what that looks like. 

So, our adults, we’re seeing such an impact in employment and how, you know, working, being able to work for an hour and then a break for two hours. You know, one of our measurable goals that we look at in our pre-and post-assessments at GiGiFit is the plank. Having proper plank form, and being able to see how long they last. And we have some of our adults, going strong, about five minutes and holding their plank, and the growth that we’ve seen over time.

I’m like, I don’t know, if we didn’t do five minutes of planking time to see that growth, come at the beat from the beginning of this session to the end, or to see that growth come overtime over the next year or so, has been amazing. And so they were seeing the success that our adults had when we first launched it with our adults. And then now to see the success that we have in all of our ages has been remarkable. 

And so we knew we needed to keep that moving forward. And Erin is our amazing rec therapist, she’s our duty Gigi’s coordinator, and the impact that she’s had on all of our families, she’s  been volunteering there for seven years. We knew “okay, if we want Erin to continue running this amazing program and be that life-changing energy, beautiful energy that she is, we need to bring her on as a contractual pay.” She is vital to our community, everybody agrees. And so, we wanted to continue being able to offer that. For Erin to volunteer for hours on a Wednesday night was just not going to happen. 

We wanted her to be able to be compensated as well. So, this program has to remain free, we have to continue offering it for our families. And this was the way we looked, “okay, this is how we can do it.”

To have an opportunity with the Healthy Lakewood Foundation to offer this life-changing program is immeasurable. I keep saying that because the ripple effect is far and wide. We could never know the impact that it has on the testimonies that we hear from families, from relatives. From where they’re employed to their schools, and their teachers on what this looks like and what the success of GiGi looks like.

That’s been such an amazing experience, and to think this is just the beginning to be able to have GiGiFit there for that lifetime to have them continue moving forward. It’s going to be exciting to see whatever goal they have, whatever goal we want to help them achieve.


Q: How long has Erin been volunteering?

Lizz Maxwell: She’s been doing GiGi’s Fit since we started in 2019. And again to see the impact, she fell in love with the program. She’s actually been an integral part of bringing it to all the networks through her feedback. I know she spoke with a person and has been in touch with the person who created GiGiFit doctors, there is a man about that. So Erin, you know, from speaking at a conference to offering different feedback to see the impact that she’s made, not just here in Cleveland, but the impact that she has across the network as well too, has been amazing.


Q: Tell me about the grant process. How was that for you? And how was it working with Katie Ingersoll, who was amazing, and her team?

Lizz Maxwell: Yeah, we have so enjoyed getting to know the Healthy Lakewood Foundation team. And Kate, especially, you know, just being here in Lakewood. You know, as an aside, I’m just so thankful for the different opportunities that I can not just run into, but see everybody have different opportunities and to take, here and there. 

And so, just to meet her [Kate] to have her come here and spend time here, getting to know our Playhouse, getting to be a part of our mission and support our mission has been, it’s been so incredible. And we enjoyed that, you know, I think it’s even more impactful when there’s a foundation that takes that time to not just, you know, you submit the application you go through that time, but then also wants to come in and take that deeper dive and be a part of this and to see it in action, if you will, and to meet our team, and to have them be able to take that time to come in. 

And to learn more, I think has been so rewarding for everybody, you know, we truly believe we are stronger together as a community, in our area, and to have a foundation like Healthy Lakewood Foundation takes that time. And there are other foundations as well, too. I’m so thankful for all of them. But to take that time to come in, and to see it in action, I think as it allows us and our mission to speak for itself when we have them to truly become a part of our team and our community.


Q: Why do you think organizations like Healthy Lakewood Foundation are important

Lizz Maxwell: I think it’s important that, you know, when there’s so many amazing nonprofits, there are so many amazing organizations doing incredible life-changing work. To have these foundations stand up where there are people on their team that believe in us in what we’re doing. you know, to be able to have a place like Gigi’s Playhouse that has great programs right away. People are like, “well, how do you afford that? Where do the funds come from?” 

They come from private donations and they come from our fundraisers, and we are so incredibly thankful for that. And it’s so vital to have these foundations that believe in advancing our health, our wellness, and our education goals. It makes us breathe a little bit easier when we know, “okay, we’ve got people in our corner that believe in this mission.” This mission where we’re breaking down barriers and changing the way the world sees Down Syndrome is important to the Healthy Lakewood Foundation and to other foundations. 

And it means that much more. And then when you have them in your corner, you want to continue working hard for your, whatever your mission is. And so, you know, knowing that they believe in us knowing that they see the importance only drives us to continue to raise the bar in ourselves, to raise the expectations of ourselves and what we’re doing here, and then in our community as well, too. What a beautiful ripple effect right where we can, when we’re all in this together. We truly are stronger together. And it’s a big thanks to the Healthy Lakewood Foundation.


Final words

Lizz Maxwell: I just want to thank the Lakewood Foundation on behalf of GiGi’s Playhouse Cleveland, and our amazing families and volunteers. And you know, Kate, thank you for the time that you invest in all of us and every single person. Yes, it’s our organization, but now to you it’s every single person in your class and it’s your mission to make Lakewood better, to raise the bar. You’re allowing us to do that. And that’s what we’re doing. So, thank you for everything. Thank you for who you are. And we are so honored to be a part of this amazing team that you’re creating.