UIC Department of Occupational Therapy selected as the 2020 Community Partner of the Year by GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago

Gigi's House announces its 2020 Community Partner of the Year

GiGi’s Playhouse Chicago, a center that supports and empowers people with Down syndrome and their families, named the Department of Occupational Therapy as its 2020 Community Partner of the Year.

After GiGi’s transitioned to online programming in the COVID-19 pandemic, OT students and alumni “dedicated their time and talents to keeping a smile on our members’ faces,” the center said in announcing the award.

OT students led and developed groups with GiGi’s Playhouse participants and their families to improve independence in everyday activities, including self-care, play, cooking and employment.

“The support from the UIC Department of Occupational Therapy and its students has been instrumental this past year. A large majority of our program leaders are UIC students and they did a wonderful job sticking with us as we transitioned our programming to a virtual platform, and supported us in our virtual fundraisers,” the organization said.

A team of 30 OT students, family and friends, led by master’s student Samantha Stevens, raised more than $2,000 in the GiGi’s Playhouse virtual dance-a-thon in November 2020.

“It was such an incredible way to connect with members of our program while also supporting an organization with such a powerful drive for inclusion,” said Stevens, a master’s student in OT.

Jasmine Brown ’18 MS OT, a Ph.D. candidate in disability studies, and Anthony Mercado ’20 MS OT, ’21 OTD conducted an evaluation of the volunteer program to find new strategies to improve volunteer retention, collaborate with community partners and discuss options for including volunteers with Down Syndrome.

Vanessa Peixoto Honorato, current MS in OT student, is among many longtime GiGi’s volunteers from UIC. Her contributions include one-on-one tutoring and group programs.

“As a volunteer at GiGi’s over the past couple years I had so many opportunities to learn, to have fun, to apply what I have learned in the classroom as an OT student, and to build meaningful connections with participants, their families, volunteers, and staff,” she said.

Justyna Falat, Emily Betz and Kaily Nagel, master’s in OT students, led the cooking club and a group for teens.

Vivian Villegas ’17 BS KINES, ’ 19 MS OT, ’20 OTD began volunteering with GiGi’s as a student in 2018. She has been a group leader and member of the Therapeutic Program Committee, and recently joined the board of directors as fundraising/events co-chair. She recently obtained grant funding from Lululemon for two individuals with Down syndrome to train as certified pediatric yoga instructors.

“The UIC OT Department has been and continues to be a leading community partner. We thank them for all of their support over the years, and we are excited to see our partnership grow in 2021,” GiGi’s Playhouse said.