Saturday, September 24, 2011

New Dow Syndrome center opens in Louisvile

Courier Journal:

When Amber Taylor was born with the genetic condition 26 years ago, the Down Syndrome of Louisville organization served families from a room at Field Elementary School and from a cramped house on Bardstown Road.

That all changed Sunday.

At a ceremony featuring dancers, drums and dignitaries, the nonprofit group's leaders opened a $3.5 million, 19,000-square-foot building that quadruples space for tutoring, speech therapy, life skills instruction and social activities for its more than 1,300 clients and their families.

Where tutors taught at worn desks crammed together in one room, clients with Down syndrome can now work one-on-one in nine private tutoring rooms. Airy, spacious classrooms serve adults, teens or children for weekend classes and summer camps.

Where before volunteers demonstrated domestic arts using hot plates and microwaves on fold-out tables, in the new building they'll be able to teach in a new kitchen and model studio apartment.

"I am very excited," said Taylor, who lives in her own apartment and works two jobs. "I would like to be on the board someday."

Taylor's mother, Pam Taylor, helped shepherd 800 families on tours of the building near Hurstbourne Parkway and Bardstown Road. Her daughter has been helped by the group her whole life, which Amber Taylor said she is thankful for.

"I have power," she said.

The result of a chromosomal condition at conception, people with Down syndrome experience mild to moderate cognitive delays and may share physical characteristics like short stature and eyes with a distinct slant, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. The syndrome is named for John Langdon Down, the British physician who first described it in 1866.

Individuals with the syndrome have a greater risk of cardiovascular conditions and respiratory and hearing problems, but with good health care and social and educational support, they can "develop their full potential and lead fulfilling lives," the society says on its website.

Juliette Leach, 7, who lives in Crescent Hill, colored with purple and blue markers as her mother, April Leach, toured the facility. Leach said Juliette, asked recently to explain Down syndrome to her second-grade classmates at Field Elementary School, told them: "I am just like you, except it takes me a little longer to learn something. So just be patient."

Kosair Charities provided the lead gift of $1.5 million for the new building, and the James Graham Brown Foundation pitched in another $500,000.

Kosair "asked me to write our dreams down," said Diana Merzweiler, executive director of Down Syndrome of Louisville. "They took a chance on a very small nonprofit."

Still ongoing is a campaign to fully furnish the building, decorated inside with tangerine, lime and light blue paint.

Many of the young adults who get help there are contributing their own earnings, Merzweiler said, buying inscribed bricks for up to $500.

Brittany Higdon, 23, of Okolona, who has Down syndrome, plunked down $500 from her hostess job at Patrick O'Shea's tavern on Main Street for one of the bricks.

Her mother, Tricia Higdon, said she spent nearly two weeks figuring out what she wanted to say on it. She decided to honor her late father, Jim Higdon, and on Sunday, they inspected the stone.

"God never dies and love never dies," it said. "That means my love for you will always be."

People like Brittany may not have typical skills, but they are endowed with extraordinary gifts, her mother said.

"Special-needs kids are special," Tricia Higdon said. "She has spirituality that I lack. That's why they are called special."

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