CAPE CORAL, Fla. - A new tool is empowering families with Down syndrome and it's powered by local moms determined not to let a diagnosis stand in the way of a bright future.
Gigi's Playhouse has been making strides across the country for a few years now and in just a few months families right here in Southwest Florida will be able to have their own playhouse to call home.
It's a place Rich Samson wishes was around decades ago when his son was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
Jon's mother Kathy Samson says she had to learn from a heart doctor well after he was born. With nowhere to turn, Kathy says she had to learn everything on her own and together she and Rich formed the Florida Tri-County Challenged Athletes Association serving players ages 16 and up.
"I have fought and fought tooth and nail since the day he was born to get anything for my child. It's a constant battle," said Kathy.
That's about to change for Southwest Florida parents, with a new weapon in the battle, Gigi's Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center offering more than 30 programs free of charge from physical therapy to helping couples cope to teaching the child how to brush their teeth to learning life skills into adulthood.
Skills parents like Tami Sherman says she needed to learn too. "Initially I just felt lost because I thought, 'I've been to college. I should know what Down syndrome is,' and I didn't," she said.
While she was pregnant, Tami learned her now dancing 2-year-old daughter Lily had Down syndrome. She says she had to go all the way to Illinois to get support, the same place where Gigi's originally started in 2003. "Nobody can go through what I went through. I am not an introverted person by nature but I got very introverted, very lonely. I felt very secluded. I don't want anyone else to feel that way. "
So she quit her job of 13 years and just opened Lily's boutique in Naples, a consignment shop with proceeds supporting Gigi's and spreading awareness throughout Southwest Florida.
Angela Rosenburg is the founder of Gigi's Playhouse in Fort Myers. Her mission; to raise enough money and support to open Gigi's in Fort Myers by this Summer. "We're in this pocket where there is nothing and the next available association would be Tampa or Miami which is quite a distance," she added.
Angela knows first hand, her son Emory's diagnosis came when he was four months old. "It's one of those things where you wish there was some place to go that you could kind of network from there."
These parents are now building an executive board and scouting the perfect spot for Gigi's turning around what was once a devastating diagnosis into a dedicated dream come true.
"That's what we're hoping Gigi's is going to be able to do, just say hey our kids are awesome, get excited, there's nothing to be sad over. Yeah, you might have some health complications and some things to get through and we're here to help you get through those things. "
Gigi's Playhouse is expected to open in Fort Myers in June of this year. Angela says they are looking at spaces close to I-75 for easy access for parents throughout all of Southwest Florida.