A 22-month-old toddler from Palatine has drawn quite a following.
Last year, Max Hogan drew nearly 50 people to be on his "Mighty Max" team, at the 5K Fun Run and 1-mile Walk to benefit GiGi's Playhouse in Hoffman Estates. Of the 1,700 people who came out, his was the largest team.
"He just makes everyone he comes into contact with, laugh or smile," says his mother, Sarah. "We don't know how he does it, but he touches everyone's heart in a positive way."
This year's event is the fifth annual, and it opens for registration at 7:30 a.m. before the 9 a.m. kickoff on June 8 at the Village Green in Prairie Stone Parkway in Hoffman Estates.
Runners will find a scenic 5K course laid out through the prairies and gardens of the open park, while families can make a shorter 1-mile trek, before kids line up for the popular 75-yard "Dash for Down syndrome."
Along the way, participants will see "awareness signs," showcasing children and adults with Down syndrome doing normal activities, from skiing to swimming to driving a car.
GiGi's Playhouse is a nonprofit Down syndrome awareness center which offers recreational activities and educational programs for individuals with Down syndrome and their families.
Max's favorite is the drop-in playtime offered on Thursday afternoons. His mother reports that he loves to play in the ball pit and climb through the tunnel, before sampling some of the pizza that regular families who attend, always order.
"Even at his young age, he's made friends there," Sarah Hogan says.
One of the most popular offerings is its literacy program, which has 150 students at the Hoffman Estates location alone. A portion of the funds raised from the 5K event - estimated to surpass last year's $60,000 - will help underwrite the literacy program, which like all of the programs, is free for participants.
Nancy Giannini of South Barrington opened the Playhouse in 2003 after her daughter, GiGi was born with Down syndrome. What started with an idea to create a positive environment for families has become a model for other communities.
Since then playhouses have been opened in Plainfield and McHenry, which just opened in April. A fourth is slated to open in July in Chicago.
"Yes, GiGi's Playhouse is growing so quickly," says Jenni Von Tobel, the only full-time employee serving the four locations, along with all of the volunteers. "We've had to jump into strategic planning just to keep up with the growth."
Von Tobel credits all of the expansion to its basic message of celebrating the abilities of people with Down syndrome, and reaching out to families. Sarah Hogan, concurs. She felt an instant connection, she says, when she visited a few months after Max was born.
"It's a wonderful place where I felt welcome," Hogan says, "and where Max was celebrated."
The Playhouse also recently debuted a traveling portrait gallery, called "I Have a Voice," capturing the faces of individuals with Down syndrome in larger-than-life portraits by Barrington photographer Thomas Balsamo. The exhibit has had a couple public showings and is available for display across the nation at trade and art shows, hospitals, meeting places, etc.
For more information on the 5K Fun Run and Walk, visit: www.gigisplayhouse.org. Click on 'register' to see all of the teams described, including the Mighty Max team, whose numbers are growing.
If you go
What: GiGi's Playhouse 5K Fun Run and Walk
When: 9 a.m. Sunday; registration opens at 7:30 a.m.
Where: Village Green at Prairie Stone Business Park, 5336 Prairie Stone Parkway in Hoffman Estates
Cost: Free, though teams are collecting pledge amounts
Call: (847) 885-PLAY or visit www.gigisplayhouse.org