As the mother of a son with Down syndrome, Shelli Eicher is more than thankful for the work being done through the local unit of GiGi’s Playhouse.

And thanks to speech students at Purdue Fort Wayne, GiGi’s and Eicher’s son are getting a little more help with their therapy programs. A new speech pathology program at PFW is paying dividends to both graduate speech pathology students and local people with Down syndrome.

Just within the last two years, the PFW Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders has grown significantly. The department received approval to proceed with its new speech-language pathology graduate program from both the Purdue University Board of Trustees and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education late last year.

The program has received national accreditation after university officials made an onsite visit early in the summer. The first students in the program began classes in August.

“Part of the requirements for students to earn their graduate degree and then be eligible for certification as a speech-language pathologist is completing 400 hours of supervised clinical practicum,” said Leah Knoblauch, a clinical assistant professor and director of the PFW Communication Disorders Clinic.

PFW officials hope the program’s newest partner will help students be able to do just that.

The program has partnered with Gigi’s Playhouse — a local agency for people with Down syndrome — to let students get a crack at helping clients there with their speech difficulties.

“This experience allows students to practice their skills off-campus early in the degree program,” said Stacy Betz, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “Which allows them to get a sense of what working as a speech-language pathologist is like. It’s a very hands-on experience in contrast to the classroom setting. This experience allows our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.”

Eicher said her son, Cameron, 23, was in need of speech therapy because he often spoke too quickly, without pauses between sentences. He often spoke so rapidly, she said, that it was difficult to understand what he was trying to say.

Mandy Drakeford, executive director of GiGi’s Playhouse Fort Wayne, said getting clients like Cameron speech therapy — no matter the source — is crucial to their treatment.

“Partnering with the university has many benefits,” Drakeford said, “because the families we serve had really identified free speech therapy as one of their biggest needs.

“And the speech barrier can be one of the biggest roadblocks for individuals with Down syndrome. So we wanted a way to blast through those barriers.”

Drakeford added that getting her clients proper treatment is especially crucial, because of the national prevalence of Down syndrome and how little money is spent for treatment.

“Down syndrome is one of the most commonly occurring genetic conditions,” Drakeford said, “but it’s one of the least funded. And we’re here to support these people and their families.”

GiGi’s Playhouse calls itself the “only network of Down syndrome achievement centers,” with more than 50 locations scattered throughout the United States and Mexico. The center notes that they provide “free, life-changing therapeutic, educational and career training programs for more than 30,000 individuals of all ages.”

Even better for GiGi’s, PFW students are providing their speech therapy help at no cost to GiGi’s or their clients. Drakeford estimated that if her agency had to pay for similar therapy with licensed clinical speech pathologists, it might cost them upward of $60,000 a year.

Eicher believes the work is critical to people such as her son. “It’s important that GiGi’s offers something like this,” she said, “because being able to speak well helps them be out in the community with their friends. It helps them to get a job someday.

“And speech is always something you can work and improve on. And the more people take advantage of a service like this, the better off these kids will be.”

Cameron began his therapy sessions about September, not long after students started providing their speech treatment assistance. It is expected that 10 graduate students and 10 GiGi’s participants will be involved in speech therapy each semester in the coming months and years.

GiGi’s Playhouse opened in Fort Wayne in 2016 at 6081 N. Clinton St. and serves approximately 300 families in northeast Indiana, southwest Michigan and northwest Ohio.

For more information on the speech-language pathology graduate program, contact Betz at betzs@pfw.edu or 260-481-6409.

To learn more about GiGi’s Playhouse, contact Drakeford at mdrakeford@gigisplayhouse.org.

For Eicher, age 51, GiGi’s isn’t just about the therapy they provide for youth with Down syndrome; it’s about the real care they give their clients.

“What I love about GiGi’s is the staff,” Eicher said. “Because they love these kids, and the kids know it. The kids know they’re loved and they’re accepted, and they can grow academically and emotionally while they are there.”

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