McHenry woman dedicates time to help those with Down syndrome

It was chili night at Gigi’s Playhouse.

As the gathering of 10 or so people shredded cheese, chopped onions and laid out the sides of chopped fruit, Jean Boyle circulated the room, helping when necessary but for the most part just letting the attendees take care of everything.

It’s part of her philosophy as a volunteer for Gigi’s Playhouse, a center for people with Down syndrome.

“She just loves everyone and treats them with respect and joy,” said Larry Breidenbach, one of the center’s volunteers who nominated Boyle for Everyday Heroes.

“She’s infectious. She loves them, and they feel her love and they love her back.”

Boyle, a McHenry resident, also works as the center’s site director, but the work she did as a program volunteer or running the galas, Bunco parties and weekly bingo nights at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post was all volunteer.

When Boyle wandered into the center’s old location four-and-a-half years ago, she “felt very much at home” and decided immediately to find some way to work there, paid or volunteer. She’s been there ever since, and is the center’s only employee.

“It’s not a quiet place when they’re here,” she said. “It’s very energetic, full of happiness, smiles and hugs – and my favorite word. It’s full of joy.”

One of her favorite programs to run is called TEAM, a group – whose acronym stands for teaching exercise, activities and motivation – for the adult members of Gigi’s Playhouse where they learn about nutrition and fitness by making a meal and then exercising.

Before tackling the chili on a recent Tuesday evening, the program’s attendees sat around a kitchen table reading about healthy foods, a task frequently interrupted by jokes and updates about what was going on in people’s lives.

Many adults with Down syndrome spend a lot of their time sitting at home alone or being talked down to, Boyle said. She wants to make sure TEAM and their weekly Friday dinners are a chance for them to have peer interaction and be treated like adults.

Part of her mission at Gigi’s Playhouse is to educate people, so more people stop underestimating people with Down syndrome and treat them in an age-appropriate manner.

That’s what makes Gigi’s Playhouse an important part of the community, said Breidenbach, who worked as a special education teacher and school principal before retiring.

People are curious but don’t engage, he said, because for years, people with disabilities weren’t out and about as much as they are today.

The first thing Boyle and other center volunteers tell parents who come in after being told their child has Down syndrome is congratulations, adding that parents are often nervous and upset about the diagnosis.

“We want to celebrate the fact,” she said.

Boyle, who went to Northern Illinois University for health and aging because she wanted to be an activities director at a nursing home, operated a day care out of her home for nine years and ran a vocational training center at Glenkirk, a nonprofit that provides residential and day programs for people with disabilities.

She started volunteering at a nursing home when she was 12 years old. In many ways, she said it was a sad experience, but she saw how much joy she was able to bring to the residents.

Her goal throughout her career has been about treating people like people, regardless of whether they’re disabled or in a nursing home, she said.