VALPARAISO | With toys, books and crayons, it looks like a typical classroom.
Yet the new Chasing Dreams center is more than that. It's designed to support children with Down syndrome, their families and extended families.
The center on Chicago Street in Valparaiso opened earlier this month and is headed by Valparaiso resident Denise Babjak, whose daughter, Lainy, 4, has the condition.
Babjak said she realized the need for support services shortly after her daughter was born.
“The demand was high, but the services weren't here,” she said. “We had to go to Chicago. So we decided to bring it to Valpo.”
Children with Down syndrome face special challenges, including delay in cognitive function, and they often have a higher risk for health issues such as heart defects, Babjak said.
Until as recently as 15 years ago, many children were placed in institutions to help them and their families cope with the various challenges.
But research has shown children with mid- to higher-levels of Down syndrome can graduate from high school and college, attain productive jobs and live self-sufficiently, Babjak said.
“There's really hope for these children to live more of an independent life,” she said.
Babjak also believes it's important to correct some misinformation surrounding Down syndrome, such as it occurs mainly in children born to older mothers. She said 80 percent of children with the condition are born to women younger than 35.
The center offers a wide range of free programs and activities for children of all ages to help build their mental, physical and social skills. It's staffed by trained volunteers, including students and retired teachers.
The classroom is divided into sections, including a resource center, library, tutoring and play areas and a stage for drama productions.
In addition to instruction in reading, math, handwriting, sign language and life skills, children enjoy art, dance, photography, exercise classes, movie and game nights and outings such as bowling.
“We just want to incorporate fun into their lives,” Babjak said. “We also want to let parents have hope that everything's going to be OK.”
Children with Down syndrome use the same toys and educational materials as other kids, but they often require more repetition to learn, Babjak said.
“But once they catch on, the sky's the limit,” she said.