MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and in western Wisconsin it’s also a week of celebration for that community.

A new playhouse opening in Hudson, Wisconsin will save families from driving hours away for therapy.

One in 700 people has Down syndrome, and souls like 2-year-old Annabelle’s are one in a million.

“She’s a spitfire and she has just made me a much more compassionate person,” said Jenna Elling, Annabelle’s mother and manager of GiGi’s Playhouse of Hudson.

Annabelle was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.

“You have this little baby in your arms who you just love to death and you want to do anything for this baby and you also have this heavy diagnosis,” Elling said. “How am I going to do this? How am I going to take care of her?”

She quickly found respite in the company of other mothers.

Cash’s mom, Ashley Stohl, and Owen’s mom, Leah Chambers, can deeply relate.

They relate to obstacles, they relate to triumphs and they relate to long commutes.

“There was a lot of resources I could find in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and there was a lot of resources in the Madison-Milwaukee area,” Elling said. “So that was my struggle — I wanted something more locally.”

Stohl added, “It takes about an hour to get to St. Louis Park and an hour to get back and an hour for programming.”

So the western Wisconsin moms are opening this specialized center this week. It’s a satellite location of GiGi’s Playhouse, a national play center for adults and kids dealing with Down syndrome and for their families.

“I think this is a a really good opportunity for people to come together because it’s open for siblings, community members — it’s really inclusive in that way,” Chambers said.

“My dream is to serve as many families as we can,” Elling said. “I’m just glad it’s a physical location people can go and come together as a community and as parents we can hang out and connect — and our kids can be together and not only play, but live up to their potential.”

GiGi’s Playhouse will operate out of the Mount Zion Lutheran Church in Hudson. They invite anyone to their grand opening Saturday after 1 p.m.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield

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