GiGi’s Playhouse staffed by adults with Down syndrome

Officials with GiGi’s Playhouse in Hoffman Estates describe their Hugs + Mugs cafe as one of the only stores of its kind to be totally staffed and run by adults with Down syndrome.

And that’s the appeal. The atmosphere is friendly — and hugs are free.

“We think it’s one of the best kept secrets in the Northwest suburbs,” says Dave Luzwick, director of adult programming and job placement.

Hugs + Mugs opened three years ago and word is getting out. On a typical day, Luzwick says, they may serve between 40-50 cups of coffee while, in a design studio tucked away in the back, interns create many of their custom gifts that are sold through the shop and online.

GiGis-Playhouse the shop also sells milkshakes, smoothies and seven flavors of gelato, all of which are big sellers.

The cafe is part of a multipronged approach of GiGi’s Playhouse, which describes itself as an “achievement center” for individuals with Down syndrome and their families. One step into the playhouse itself reflects the center’s warm, vibrant approach, with its array of colorful toys, books and even murals.

Programming in both small and large classrooms ranges from prenatal support and classes for early learners, up to literacy and math tutoring, speech therapy, fitness classes and social groups.

Those young adults who work in the cafe start out in GiGi U first, attending two, 12-week sessions. Sitting in a classroom located in the back of the playhouse, students study literacy and math, as well as public speaking, fitness, and health and wellness.

After completing their sessions, students can begin an 18-week internship working in the cafe while they transition into working at a job in the community.

Some, like Kiera Breault, 35, of Palatine — who works for the Nelson Group Hair Salon in Palatine — likes helping out in the cafe so much, she keeps coming back.

“It’s important to have good customer service,” Kiera says, before reciting the motto behind “Generation G.” “Be accepting, be generous, be kind.”

Another veteran is Samir Dadrowski, 26, of Mount Prospect. He now divides his time between working for the Niles Park District and the cafe, while Jenny Pavnik, 32, of Inverness works at the Jewel-Osco in Barrington when she’s not at the cafe.

“I like to count the money and make change,” Jenny says, “and helping customers.”

Creating gifts is the main appeal to Christine Maxwell, 40, a native of South Barrington now living in her own apartment in Evanston. She comes out every weekend to work at the cafe, both as a mentor to younger employees and to design artwork to decorate gifts.

Interns use a heat press machine to imprint her images on cards, T-shirts, water bottles and key chains.

“They like my drawing and they ask me to do it for all the holidays,” says Christine, a multisport athlete in Special Olympics and an ambassador with the Global Messenger initiative. “For me, it’s like my own gallery.”

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