Helping Adults with Down Syndrome Turn Passion into Purpose

There are many things Erin Suelmann wants others to know about individuals with Down syndrome. “They are more like you than different. And, while learning may take longer and speech is often affected by low muscle tone, they have plenty of important thoughts to share and talents to contribute,” says Suelmann, Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis (DSAGSL).
Suelmann speaks not only from her experience with DSAGSL, but as the big sis to a brother with Down syndrome. “People with Down syndrome can and do live amazing lives, yet are not as effectively served as others with disabilities,” she says. “Our vision at DSAGSL is to be the most comprehensive resource on Down syndrome in the region, serving a community where all people with Down syndrome can reach their full potential.”

Part of this commitment involves preparing adults with Down syndrome for the workforce and connecting them with potential employers. Through a grant by the Wayne C. Kauffmann Charitable Foundation, DSAGSL launched its Ready to Work Employment programming in 2016, which has been supported by the Foundation since. Services include a training academy where students identify and explore their passions, discover opportunities, practice employment skills and learn how to apply for the perfect job. DSAGSL also cultivates relationships with area businesses, educates the community on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, and teaches students and parents how to advocate for employment.

“There have been so many successes for people with Down syndrome in the last 40 years: individuals are living three times longer, have been included in the school system and the workforce, and much more,” says Suelmann. “Along with these milestones, we now have higher expectations for them, and our employment programs are about helping them succeed as an adult and finding the right place where they can turn passion into purpose.”

Suelmann says since 2016, 13 people have been successfully placed in new jobs. She shares the story of one in particular, a 40-year-old who declared early in training that “music is my life!” DSAGSL helped place him in a position at Mozingo Music, where the owners say he has not only thrived as a staff member but has changed their lives.

“People with Down syndrome still deal with fear and uncertainty from others as a result of misunderstanding,” she says. “I’m so proud that we are part of bridging the unknown and changing the trajectory of their lives.”