GiGi’s Playhouse raises money, awareness of Down Syndrome with San Diego Donut Run
For many, the space is a refuge — one full of growth, acceptance and chosen family. Colorful toys and cushions scatter the carpet; posters and pictures cover turquoise walls; music and singing echo through the halls. And that brightness is only magnified by the brimming smiles and bright eyes of its visitors, who come from all over San Diego.
This is GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down Syndrome Achievement Center that offers support for individuals with Down Syndrome and their families. The nonprofit, which hosts free educational and therapeutic programs, currently has more than 50 locations nationwide, including one in on Cass Street in Pacific Beach.
Stephanie Rais Ortiz, marketing and communications chair of Gigi’s Playhouse San Diego, has a 5-year-old daughter with Down Syndrome. After Ortiz delivered her daughter, the newborn was given a birth diagnosis of Down Syndrome — meaning they had no idea she had the condition prior to her birth.
“We didn’t know anyone with Down Syndrome — at the hospital they kept bringing over the same worksheets over and over with this really outdated information and we just kind of felt like our life was completely over,” Ortiz said.
When they left the hospital, Ortiz realized she needed to seek support and searched for resources online. That’s when she stumbled upon GiGi’s Playhouse.
“It was colorful and it was cheerful. I was like, ‘This is what we need. This is the place we need to go to get some answers and some guidance, and they’re going to help us,’” she said.
When Ortiz reached out to the group in March 2016, she learned that the San Diego chapter had not yet opened. But the incoming president, Karen Falk, invited Ortiz to help her launch the center.
Two years later, the facility officially opened in Pacific Beach — marking the first physical space in San Diego dedicated to supporting those with Down Syndrome.
The center now offers a variety of programs for individuals with Down Syndrome — including music and physical therapies, literacy and math tutoring, no-contact karate classes, and cooking club — as well as informational and support groups for caretakers. (Unfortunately, the center was forced to pause in-person operations in March 2020 due to the pandemic, but were able to shift many of their programs to a virtual format.)
The San Diego chapter, which only has two paid staff members, relies heavily on volunteers. One of the first San Diegans to lend a hand was South Bay resident Andrea De Los Santos, who helped with some of the prep work that allowed the facility to open.
Santos, who was studying Speech Language Pathology at San Diego State University at the time, said the nonprofit was aligned with what she wanted to do in her future career, adding that she thinks those with Down Syndrome are “the most loveable children ever.”
Though Santos stopped volunteering two years ago when she moved away for graduate school, her connection to GiGi’s took an unexpected turn. Soon after leaving San Diego, her mother became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy with Down Syndrome.
“When doctors give a diagnoses for Down Syndrome, they (sometimes) don’t deliver it in the best way, so it was really hard for her to process,” Santos said.
Luckily, Santos was able to connect her mother to the community at GiGi’s Playhouse, where she received support and talked with people dealing with similar circumstances. Santos said that once her 2-year-old brother gets older, they plan for him to attend programs at the center.
Another parent, Jennifer Candelario, found out about the center through a friend three years ago. Since then she has utilized many of its services, such as literacy programs and music therapy, for her 6-year-old son Mateo.
Like Santos’ mother, Candelario found comfort at GiGi’s Playhouse, including observing children with Down Syndrome of all ages and at different developmental stages. She’s also formed family-like bonds with many of the parents, some of whom she now considers best friends, and recently joined the board as secretary of the San Diego chapter.
“(At the center) you’re not on this island by yourself … it’s really nice to be able to share all that information and therapies,” Candelario said. “Sometimes it’s not even about going there for the therapies, it’s going there to hang out with everyone and feel a part of something.”
But running the center — which does not charge members for its services — isn’t cheap. So throughout the year, the nonprofit hosts various events, including its two largest fundraisers: an annual gala and the San Diego Donut Run, happening in June.
Why donuts? With the popularity of runs in San Diego, they wanted a name that would stand out. During the brainstorming process back in 2018, the vice president said to the group: “I don’t know, I do not really run.” That funny remark, coupled with another board member’s love for donuts, inspired the quirky theme.
“We might not be the most athletic bunch, but we’ll run for donuts,” Ortiz said, laughing.
San Diego Donut Run, which invites families to form a team, raise money and run (or walk) a 5K or 1-mile route, was a success early on. By its second year, the 2019 event raised $60,000 and was projected to bring in $100,000 in 2020. But the pandemic had different plans.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, last year’s run pivoted to a virtual format. All participants were encouraged to set their own movement goals and fundraise remotely. On the last day of the run, everyone was invited to swing by the center’s parking lot to receive free donuts in a drive-thru format. Despite the altered format, the event still raised an estimated $30,000.
This year’s event will also be virtual, with a drive-thru celebration planned for June 5 from 9 a.m. to noon. Every participant will receive a shirt, medal and donut, with prizes awarded for Best Decked Out Car, Biggest Team and Most Funds Raised.
Though 2021’s edition will look very similar to last year, Ortiz said that some in-person entertainment or activities could possibly be added to this year’s celebration, depending on the current COVID-19 restrictions.
Along with offering support to individuals and families, GiGi’s Playhouse strives to increase awareness of the condition within the community. In addition to raising money for GiGi’s Playhouse’s programs, Candelario said that events like the San Diego Donut Run help expose the world to Down Syndrome, helping to challenge misconceptions some people may have about it.
“We always use (Donut Run) as an opportunity to ... get out there and show the community that these kids are more alike than they are different,” Candelario said.
“In general, our family likes to take Mateo out and about and show him to the community,” she continued. “I think a lot of the community just isn’t educated and they don’t know what it looks like.”