Local families find support, acceptance in South Jersey –based non profit KIIDS

KIIDS offers a variety of free activities and events for the entire family of children with Down syndrome throughout the region

The KIIDS organization fosters friendships among children of various ages, as well as their families, who live with the diagnoses of Down syndrome. Pictured are KIIDS members Claire Wells, Rosie Marchese and Tori Campo, posing for a photo at a performance of “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo courtesy of Lori Wells)

In December 2007, Mullica Hill resident Elaine Marchese received the prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome in her fourth child, Rosie. At the time, she and her family were in search of support and answers, so when she met with an outreach coordinator from Knowledge and Information about Individuals with Down Syndrome, a South Jersey-based nonprofit, she not only found a support group of parents and children who have lived the same journey, but a family of understanding and inclusion.

After initially meeting at a playgroup for children with Down syndrome in the early 2000s, KIIDS was founded by a group of seven families who realized there was a need for programs that focused specifically on younger-aged children, such as their own. Since then, the organization has grown to more than 100 families, offering programs and activities for children with Down syndrome of all ages, as well as the entire family.

“Getting to know other parents and families, there’s an instant bond, a sense of understanding and empathy,” said Co-Founder Lori Wells of Mullica Hill, mother of Claire, 11. “There’s a wealth of information sharing that is so valuable to help everyone maximize their child’s health and full potential.”

With free programs held throughout South Jersey, led by board members and fellow parents geared toward all age groups, such as art parties, music and fitness classes, hayrides, pumpkin picking, playgroups at the zoo or park and more, KIIDS offers an opportunity for the entire family of children with Down syndrome to socialize in an accepting environment.

The organization is funded through small fundraisers throughout the year, as well as their largest event, the bi-annual Fashion Show Benefit, scheduled for April 22, at The Mansion on Main Street in Voorhees. KIIDS’ goal is to raise enough money to fund their social events, as well as send two members to the National Down Syndrome Congress meeting each summer.

“I think one of the main benefits is for the kids to go out and have fun in a completely accepting, embracing environment,” Wells said. “It’s a no-judgment zone where your kids can come, try something new, and they may even meet their new best friend.”

According to Co-Founder Terri Bank of Gloucester Township, mother of Michael, 16, while the organization began as a place for children and families to connect, it also aimed to share up-to-date information to medical and educational professionals, as well as the public about Down syndrome. Through efforts of outreach and educational programs and seminars, the organization’s mission is to create awareness and acceptance for children with special needs.

Inspired by her own experiences, Marchese became a KIIDS parent outreach representative three years ago, responsible for meeting with families to provide information about the organization, as well as local resources, medical facilities and support. Marchese said she often offers new families to meet with her own to give them an idea what of “their new normalcy will be.”

“Rosie is a beacon for light in people, and when you have that diagnosis, it’s very hard to see beyond your immediate; you’re scared, it’s the unknown,” Marchese said, “but to be able to see a normal functioning family with a child with special needs, it’s beautiful.”

KIIDS is available in two forums on Facebook, one private for families of Down syndrome to ask questions, network and share information, and one public to spread awareness of upcoming events, seminars, as well as provide information for the public about what Down syndrome is all about.

“These kids are so much more like us than not like us,” Bank said. “My advice is to just remember these kids will be the rock stars of your family; they will touch so many people’s lives, you just have no idea how widespread their love and joy goes around.”

To learn more about KIIDS, visit www.kiids.info, or join them on Facebook.