Tom Hoge aids in GiGi's Playground rebirth, donates earnings from RSM Birdies Fore Love
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Written by Helen Ross @Helen_PGATOUR
Heather Lorenzen was inside the building that Tuesday afternoon when she saw the smoke. Within 10 minutes, GiGi’s Playhouse was engulfed in flames and its roof had collapsed.
All the learning resources for the facility that serves the Down syndrome community in Fargo, North Dakota, and beyond were destroyed in the three-alarm arson fire. Several other businesses in the strip mall were also damaged, and officials estimated the total losses at $1.5 million.
Lorenzen, the executive director of GiGi’s Playhouse, was heartbroken.
“Within a matter of 10 minutes, I watched … five years of our board and our community's hard work for what we do and offer burn up in flames,” she says.
That was May 11, 2021. Eighteen months later, GiGi’s Playhouse had not only rebuilt in the same location, the learning center was able to expand. And PGA TOUR veteran Tom Hoge, who grew up in Fargo, was part of the rebirth thanks to the RSM Birdies Fore Love competition.
The aftermath of the fire at GiGi's Playhouse. (GiGi's Playhouse)
Hoge was able to donate $50,000 to the group’s “Rise Together” capital campaign, funds that were matched by the Englestad Foundation. For a grass-roots organization like GiGi’s Playhouse that receives no state or federal funding, the money was a huge boost.
The money was part of the $300,000 Hoge won when he tied for first in the RSM Birdies Fore Love competition in the fall of 2021. A family friend who has a child with Down syndrome told him about the fire in his hometown, and Hoge, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, knew he wanted to help.
“I took it as a great challenge to find charities that would really make a big impact directly in those communities where I live now (and) where I grew up and kind of make the dollars go the furthest,” Hoge says. “So, to find something like GiGi's Playhouse where it’s kind of really the only thing like it to help kids with Down syndrome in the area in Fargo and they were at a great need at that time because their building just burned down.
“So, it was kind of the perfect fit at that time. And it really, I would say, opened my eyes a lot to how many charities there are in need and kind of the platform that we have as professional golfers to really help out in a lot of areas.”
Hoge’s donation helped equip the Early Learning Exploration Room. At the door is a plaque that reads: Proudly Sponsored by Tom Hoge.
Scenes from GiGi's Playhouse. (GiGi's Playhouse)
“I did not know that,” he says. “That’s pretty cool.”
GiGi’s Playhouse, one of 58 achievement centers across the country, provides free educational opportunities, physical therapy and social programs for individuals with Down syndrome and their families.
Lorenzen says Hoge’s donation was “truly life-changing.” And the fire turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Lorenzen and her team were able to reimagine the space to better serve everyone, adding rooms for one-on-one literary and math tutoring as well as sensory reading nooks, for example. The roof line of the gym was able to be raised, too, and separate spaces created for teens and adults.
The Early Learning Exploration Room is targeted towards 2- to 12-year-olds and houses everything from toys to a kitchenette to a loft where the kids can climb. There’s also a playroom with a storefront that can be changed to a doctor’s office or a veterinary clinic or a grocery store so the kids can explore different types of careers.
A playroom in GiGi's Playhouse. (Amdak)
“We do our programming out in the main area and so when they work hard, they get to go play,” Lorenzen says. “And it is just like kids running down to the Christmas tree to open their gifts.”
GiGi’s Playhouse also has an expanded, working kitchen where the kids learn about eating healthy, as well as life skills like opening an oven and giving it time for the hot air to escape or safety skills like chopping and sanitation. There are different kinds of sinks and stove tops, including one you might find in a restaurant, and a variety of paper towel dispensers, as well. Thought was even given to the various types of water faucets and toilets a child might encounter – in fact, the restrooms have four different kinds for adults and two for toddlers.
The goal, Lorenzen says, is to encourage learning in an environment where everyone feels safe.
“We got to take a devastating event and we got to dream again or dream bigger,” Lorenzen says. “We really focused on independence from the moment you walk in the door and with that focus of independence, being able to act your age, being that we do serve the lifespan, zero through adult.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone had an opportunity and everything behind it has some sort of career skill built in knowing that our babies aregoing to grow up to be our next workforce.”
And Hoge’s donation helped make those dreams a reality.