Chris Newlon had a two-word request when it came to writing about her as an Everyday Hero: “Child first.”
Her 9-year-old daughter, Rebecca, was in the next room getting help with reading at GiGi’s Playhouse, a resource center for people with Down syndrome and their families. Newlon wants her daughter to be seen as an ordinary person who happens to have Down syndrome and not be defined by it in the eyes of others.
“I want her to be able to go to a store or a restaurant and not have people look at her like she’s an oddity. Part of that is building her confidence, too,” Newlon said.
Newlon as a volunteer is a fixture at the McHenry playhouse. And when she’s not working to keep the playhouse going, she is out in the community raising awareness about Down syndrome and the local resources available for affected families.
The center at 5404 W. Elm St., Suite A, caters to more than 75 families with loved ones with Down syndrome. It is the third GiGi’s Playhouse – the original is in Hoffman Estates. There are now 14 nationwide either helping families or planning to open soon.
Newlon had heard of GiGi’s Playhouse when Rebecca was a baby and wanted very badly to participate, but the distance and the fact that the classes for children ages 3 and younger took place during Rebecca’s nap time presented a problem.
Until, that is, a GiGi’s Playhouse opened up in McHenry. Rebecca was 4˝ and soon would have the invaluable resource center much nearer. It started out on Route 31 before moving to larger accommodations at 5404 W. Elm St. three years ago.
“I walked in one day, said, ‘Get me started,’ and I’ve been here ever since,” Newlon said.
Newlon is one of about 100 volunteers who help at the playhouse – there is only one paid employee. Donations of funds and materials keep the playhouse going. A metal donation tree sits to the left of the entrance with notes listing the center’s needs, from juice boxes and toilet paper to a new couch to replace the aging one next to the table holding the tree. GiGi’s Playhouse now is looking for local businesses willing to sponsor fundraising events.
Walking through the restrooms – painted several years ago by McHenry High School varsity football players – Newlon showed off the private tutoring rooms where playhouse visitors can get educational help.
Rebecca was in one of the two rooms working on her reading with a tutor. Newlon said the program has done wonders for her daughter, who attends third grade at Valley View School.
“She’s reading on grade level because of our literacy program,” Newlon said.
The playhouse is looking to create more programs – priorities include starting a teen program and helping children improve their math skills.
“We’re always looking for tutors. We’d like to get our math program started. We have the program – we just need the people to do it,” she said.
Family friend Kari Beres was one of several people who nominated Newlon as an Everyday Hero. She called Newlon “instrumental” to the playhouse.
“She devotes an inordinate amount of time,” Beres said. “I’m not doing Chris justice with the amount of volunteer work she does.”
Newlon said she was “a little embarrassed” by being honored, and said she is only one of many who work to keep the playhouse going.
“Everybody has something to offer. If you only have an hour a month, we can fit you in,” Newlon said.
But in many ways, the most important thing the playhouse offers is acceptance, not just for people with Down syndrome, but for their families, as well.
“No one is judging them to see if they can read at grade level or whether they’re crawling yet,” Newlon said. “Everyone who walks through that door is accepted for who they are. Doesn’t everybody want that?”
How to help
To donate to GiGi’s Playhouse, visit gigisplayhouse.org/mchenry or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you visit the playhouse at 5404 W. Elm St., Suite A, McHenry, they have a donation tree near the door with notes of the items they need.
The Newlon lowdown
Who is she? Volunteer at GiGi’s Playhouse in McHenry
Family? Husband Shaun, children Sarah, 25, Joe, 22, John, 18, Jessica, 13, and Rebecca, 9.
Favorite food? Grandmother’s macaroni and cheese
Favorite movie? “The Princess Bride”
Fun fact: If you missed National Down Syndrome Awareness Month last October, World Down Syndrome Day is March 21.