HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – Nestled in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Hugs and Mugs, on the outside at least, looks like a typical coffee shop. But this is no ordinary coffee shop. The unique café employs predominantly “interns” – all of whom have Down syndrome or another intellectual disability.

More than 20 of their interns are learning real-life job skills, while serving customers their food and drinks.

Not only does the café help the servers, even the coffee and coffee cups are from companies that employ people with disabilities.

   (Photo: Kubota, Samantha)

Hugs and Mugs is affiliated with Gigi’s Playhouse, a national company that gives families who have children with Down syndrome a positive place to play and hang out.

Gigi’s Playhouse – along with Hugs and Mugs – was started by Nancy Gianni from Hoffman Estates when her daughter Gigi was just 14 months old. There are now 32 locations around the country, and three other Hugs and Mugs locations.

The center is a drop-in play place for families full of toys and activities. A large cheerful space with upbeat music playing, it is far from a dreary clinic or office. The families who visit can also get free services for their children such as physical and speech therapy. More than 825 families take advantage of these services and can listen in on sessions so they can continue the work at home. Gigi’s Playhouse is a non-profit organization that relies only on grants and donations but not state funds.

   (Photo: Kubota, Samantha)

“They’re capable of doing anything and they will achieve anything they want to do as long as they have the proper support,” Stephanie Bolger, the manager of Hugs and Mugs explained. “Generation G [Gigi’s Playhouse program] is to be accepting, be generous, be kind.”