By CATHY LENNY
Fulfilling a need that few knew existed, the Albert Pujols Wellness Center for Adults with Down Syndrome has done nothing but grow since its inception 10 years ago.
What began as an idea during a dinner party has blossomed into a multifaceted facility that helps connect clients to wellness services that focus on nutrition, exercise, safety and social/emotional well-being – geared specifically to meet their unique needs.
Beth Schroeder was instrumental in bringing the Center to fruition. She found that, while there were many services and organizations that helped children with Down syndrome, there were few resources available to her adult son, who has Down syndrome. Determined to open such a center, Schroeder enlisted the help of Jan Potts and her husband, pulmonologist Dr. Daniel Potts. Together, they convinced former St. Luke’s president Gary Olson to put a team together to investigate possible options.
It didn’t hurt that Schroeder was friends with Albert and Deidre Pujols, who also have a child with Downs syndrome. The Pujols jumped on board immediately. Even though the Pujols now live in California, they still keep in contact with the Center.
“Once they finish high school and possibly two years of vocational training, medically and socially-wise, there’s nothing left for them,” social worker Stacey Laughlin said of the Center’s clients. Laughlin attributes the Center, which is designed for clients age 17 and older, with helping them live longer and healthier lives.
Schroeder aids in assessing the needs of clients, which include social and psychological as well as physical.
“Social interaction is important to them,” Laughlin said. “As [our clients] age, as they get older, they don’t get out.”
She added that “weight is especially trying for them.” Nutrition programs are designed to remind clients to “choose this, not that” and learn about portion control. It’s a lesson Schroeder has seen play out first hand with her 28-year-old son, Ethan. The classes are all about repetition.
Schroeder credits the Center’s nutritionists with being able to convey a healthy eating message to its clients. “That has really provided the success. I’ve seen clients who have lost substantial weight. They’re much healthier, more active,” she said.
Children born with Down syndrome have a life expectancy of about 40 years. For those who live longer, Alzheimer’s disease is a prevalent challenge. “Instead of the average age of onset at approximately 70, they have an accelerated aging process and develop it 20 years earlier, around 50 to 60,” Laughlin said.
The Center provides education to families on what signs and symptoms to look for in regard to Alzheimer’s and what steps to take. Additional programs include classes in speech and language, crafts, kickboxing, cardio training, group dance, hand chimes and choir.
Mike Ott, board member of the Young Professionals of St. Luke’s, said the Center is the only one in the Midwest offering services for adults with Down syndrome – and demand for its offerings is growing. Today, the Center and St. Luke’s are exploring additional space either on the third floor of the hospital or in another building on the hospital site.
As a member of the group, Ott has helped orchestrate an annual holiday celebration that benefits the Center. This year, that event was held on Nov. 1 at the Anheuser-Busch Biergarten. Ott said the Center was chosen as the event’s beneficiary precisely because it doesn’t receive a lot of other funding. “With a lot of charities, you don’t know where the money goes. [With the Center] you can actually see where the money is going and who’s benefiting from it,” Ott said.