Building confidence, one coffee at a time

Aubrey Soukup might be petite in stature, but her gigawatt smile is hard to miss. And every Tuesday morning, customers at Hugs & Mugs are sure to be on the receiving end of one of her grins when they grab a coffee or gelato. 

Hugs & Mugs Giftshop & Café is part of GiGi’s Playhouse, the Down syndrome achievement center based in Hoffman Estates. The café’s employees are graduates of GiGi University, an eight-week program that teaches young adults with Down syndrome essential life skills, such as healthy eating, interviewing and budgeting. Aubrey has been able to implement some of those skills at her paying job; she works at McDonald’s two days a week.

Since GiGi U—as it’s commonly called—is free, graduates are required to volunteer at Hugs & Mugs for 18 months (they only take home tips). But most graduates enjoy the experience so much that they stay longer. Aubrey has worked there for three years. 

In addition to the café, the “mug” part of the name refers to how customers can create personalized gifts, such as mugs and water bottles. Aubrey enjoys designing the artwork for the personalized items, choosing relevant quotes and drawing pictures. 

But her favorite part of Hugs & Mugs—and of GiGi’s Playhouse in general—is helping with LMNOP, a hands-on class for babies and toddlers. 

“I get to interact with people that are just like me,” she says. “I can be a great role model.”

Nancy Gianni, the founder of GiGi’s Playhouse, says that Aubrey’s work with younger kids has had a big impact not just on the children, but on their parents, as well.

“What I love about Aubrey is she knows this isn’t just about the babies that she’s helping, it’s about the parents watching her as a young adult with Down syndrome,” Gianni says. “I think she feels empowered.”

Aubrey’s mom, Julie, agrees, saying that the biggest thing her daughter has gained from working at Hugs & Mugs is confidence.

“[I feel] very proud, especially seeing her with the younger kids at LMNOP,” Julie says. “Because that’s how I remember her … and now she’s helping kids with special needs so they can grow up and learn to be accepted and caring and kind to others.”

Aubrey will complete the Lake Zurich High School transition program in December and plans to go to college—she’s considering Harper College and Judson University—for more training in working with kids who have special needs. 

“Growing up, people told us, ‘She probably won’t be able to do this,’” Julie says. “We never held her back. She can pass that on, as she helps kids with special needs, that you can do what you set your mind to. You can accomplish what your dreams and goals are.”

Aubrey dreams of owning her own GiGi’s Playhouse one day, and Gianni thinks that’s a great idea. 

“I think she’d be an amazing advocate and an amazing peer to work alongside,” Gianni says. “I really respect her and her dedication and passion.”

And in the meantime, if you happen to stop by Hugs & Mugs on a Tuesday morning, be sure to say hi to the petite brunette with the contagious grin. Because Aubrey’s got a big smile to go along with her big dreams—and she’ll serve it up with a scoop of gelato. 


Meet Aubrey Soukup

Age: 21

Hometown: Kildeer

Family: Parents Dana and Julie; siblings Austin, 23, Andrew, 18, Ashley, 16, Alayna, 13, and Aidan, 9

In her words: “Don’t give up on yourself. You have achieved so much in your life that I wouldn’t give up on anything, even if someone says you can’t. You have to remind yourself that you can do anything. You can set your own limits. … You were born to stand out.”

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