GiGi’s Playhouse named Dance Marathon’s 2017 beneficiary

Shane McKeon, Campus Editor

GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for people with Down syndrome, is Dance Marathon’s 2017 primary beneficiary, DM announced Wednesday.

“GiGi’s mission statement is to garner acceptance, which we think is something Northwestern’s campus is working toward on many different levels,” said DM spokeswoman Jackie Montalvo, a Medill junior. “They offer programming from prenatal through adulthood. They offer support for parents and families. They’re really working toward acceptance on all levels.”

The nonprofit operates in 30 different locations in the U.S. and Mexico, and it’s programming helped more than 25,000 people in 2015. DM’s executive board approved the nonprofit unanimously after an extensive selection process, Montalvo said.

Nancy Gianni, the nonprofit’s founder, said the funds raised will go toward speech therapy, tutoring, fitness classes and more, all of which the organization provides for free.

Gianni also said GiGi’s hopes to use the money to open mobile carts that can support individuals with Down syndrome in low-income and rural areas, where resources now are lacking.

Gianni said there remains a stigma toward those with Down syndrome: She said her daughter — for whom the nonprofit is named — is still sometimes stared at in airports “like she’s less-than or they’re afraid of her.”

“We want all individuals in this world to be accepted, embraced and given the tools they need to succeed in their lives,” Gianni said. “Having a campus embrace our children is going to open this up to other campuses embracing our kids or anyone who is different. This group of students was able to see that.”

In addition to fundraising for GiGi’s, DM will also sponsor tutoring sessions taught by NU students for children with Down syndrome. Montalvo said the sessions, held on campus, will provide more service opportunities for students, some of whom would rather volunteer than fundraise.

“There are people on this campus who have reached out to people on our executive board, feeling like they wanted to do more and have an opportunity to do more,” Montalvo said. “It makes it more accessible to students who have been reaching out to do service.”

After facing criticism, DM took steps to increase inclusivity, which included increasing funding for scholarships for students who couldn’t afford the $50 registration fee, which has now decreased to $35. In April 2014, more than two dozens students published a letter in The Daily calling on the organization to be “bigger than a tent” and become more accessible for low-income and non-Greek students.

Montalvo also said DM will launch a new grant program next year, aiming to raise $17,200 to help low-income students and smaller teams with fundraising. Montalvo said DM hopes alumni and parents will help raise the funding goal, which is $400 times 43, the number of years DM has been on campus.

“We don’t want to limit people’s opportunity to be in the tent and to dance for the 30 hours,” she said.

Fundraising and volunteering for the nonprofit will also let students work against ableism on campus and beyond, Montalvo said.

“When you realize the challenges people with Down syndrome face every day, like dealing with so much discrimination, you realize NUDM has the power to not only improve the futures of these people, but also to change the way the rest of the world sees their differences by spreading awareness and acceptance,” SESP junior Jenny Halpern, one of DM’s executive co-chairs, said in the release.

SESP junior Ian Pappas, the other DM executive co-chair, said GiGi’s far-reaching message appealed to him and the rest of DM’s executive board.

“It’s about global acceptance and global awareness,” Pappas said. “It’s about celebrating difference and really allowing people to grow as people no matter what their abilities are.”

DM’s secondary beneficiary will be the Evanston Community Foundation, a local nonprofit being supported by DM for the 20th year in a row.

Dance Marathon will begin March 3, 2017.

A previous version of this story misstated the cost of DM’s registration fee. The fee is $35. The Daily regrets the error. 

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. to clarify how GiGi’s Playhouse hopes to use the money raised from Dance Marathon.