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GiGi’s Playhouse in Oak Forest supports Down syndrome kids, families

Diane Husar smiles with her sLuke during fundraiser for GiGi's Playhouse 5400 W. 159th St. Oak Forest IL December 9

Diane Husar smiles with her son, Luke, during a fundraiser for GiGi's Playhouse, 5400 W. 159th St., Oak Forest, IL, on December 9, 2012. The center is a place for people with kids like Luke, who has Down syndrome, to meet. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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For more information about the organization, visit gigisplayhouse.org/

For more information about events at the Oak Forest location, visit gigisplayhouse.org/oakforest/blog/

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Updated: January 28, 2013 6:06AM



Once Diane Husar got over the initial shock that her son was diagnosed with Down syndrome, she set about trying to make his life better.

Now she’s trying to improve life for other children with Down syndrome, and their families as well.

Husar heads the GiGi’s Playhouse in Oak Forest, temporarily located in a former church at 5400 W. 159th St. It is the only Southland location for the organization.

Husar hopes to find a permanent home for GiGi’s Playhouse, which has 14 other sites from New York to Mexico. A fundraiser to meet future needs was held at the current site on Dec. 9.

“It was awesome. Hundreds of people came out for the full four hours. I’m surprised they stayed as long as they did,” Husar said. “This is our home right now, and we hope to open somewhere else. We’ll continue to raise money and have the money to rent somewhere.”

The site is “on loan from Mayor Hank Kuspa,” Husar said. The city owns the site and has taken to letting nonprofits use it so it doesn’t sit empty all the time.

The next fundraiser is from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn, 5100 Museum Drive. Admission will be $6 per person, with half the fee benefitting GiGi’s Playhouse.

Husar’s son, Luke, 5, is “a healthy little boy,” she said. But when he was diagnosed, Husar and her husband, Mike Husar, were not ready to hear the words “Down syndrome” mentioned about their baby.

Some with Down syndrome may have slower physical development than normal and may also have delayed mental and social development.

“A couple days after his birth, I was looking for positive things. It’s a scary diagnosis, but when you search for information, you learn about it,” Diane Husar said.

That’s when she learned about GiGi’s Playhouse, a place that offered support to families and “gives them a place to meet and gather in a happy space.”

A former Chicago Public Schools teacher, Husar left her career to focus on running the Oak Forest chapter of GiGi’s Playhouse.

The closest one had been in the Bradley-Bourbonnais area. Another was on Chicago’s North Side. Oak Forest, she said, can better serve Down syndrome families throughout the Southland.

“I’ve been to the other sites. We picked this area because it’s closer to Interstate 57 and 80 and the far south suburbs,” she said.

The organization’s mission “is to increase positive awareness of Down syndrome through national campaigns, educational programs, and by empowering individuals with Down syndrome, their families and the community,” according to its website.

Its vision statement is “to see a world where individuals with Down syndrome are accepted and embraced in their families, schools, and communities.”

“Each GiGi’s offers what the community needs,” Husar said. “From reading and math tutoring to physical therapy, I’m trying to get the GiGi’s open now so that when my son is an adult, he can go there with his friends and hang out. So that he and others can have somewhere safe to be.”

It’s all reliant on donations, hence the fundraising efforts.

The diagnosis is not an end-all, Husar said.

“It’s not what you expect, but my family and husband’s family never felt sad and alone. There are some who get the diagnosis and feel alone. This is a place for them to go and speak to supportive families,” she said. “The Internet has allowed people to see it not as a death sentence or the end of your life. It can be motivational.”

Husar’s goal is daunting. She hopes to raise about $70,000 of the $100,000 she figures would cover the first year’s rent somewhere. Corporate sponsorships would be nice, too, she said.

But she’s confident, noting that at a bake sale, people would hand over $20 bills for a $5 item and not ask for their change.



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