Fifteen years ago, Diana Merzweiler’s grandson was born with Down syndrome. In 2001, she became the executive director of Down Syndrome of Louisville (DSL). In the short years since, she has transformed DSL from a parent-run group that rented space in church basements into a respected, not-for-profit organization that raised money to build a multimillion-dollar, 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility. It now serves people with Down syndrome from birth through adulthood. Very few Down syndrome organizations in the country have such a strong foundation. Welcome this week’s FACE of Louisville, Diana Merzweiler!
How did you get involved with Down Syndrome of Louisville?
My introduction to Down Syndrome of Louisville happened when my grandson, Justin, was diagnosed with Down syndrome 15 years ago. The DSL staff provided incredible, invaluable support and education to our family. A few months later, I served as a volunteer for DSL’s Annual Pro-Celebrity Golf Tournament and learned that the organization was growing and expanding the role of the executive director in 2001. I soon met with the DSL board members, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Tell us about the new DSL facility.
Down Syndrome of Louisville opened the first Down Syndrome Lifelong Learning Center in the United States in September 2011. The center is on six acres on South Hurstbourne Parkway. Its design accommodates the research-based educational programming for children and adults that goes on there. DSL programming provides lifelong skill development, so our members can reach their individual goals of independent life in our community. Our programming enhances the education our members receive during their elementary and high school years in their neighborhood schools, and we partner with Jefferson Technical College for post-secondary education opportunities for our adult members.
In 2013 DSL expanded services to Southern Indiana families with the opening of our Clarksville Down Syndrome Lifelong Learning Center.
You have a reputation for being first on the scene when parents find out their child has Down syndrome. Why is this crucial?
When parents learn their child has Down syndrome, they aren’t just seeking current medical information, they are looking for assurances that their child will participate in everyday life. When I meet with a family, I can share the life experiences of our local members and the opportunities their child will be provided in our community. I assure the family that they are not alone in finding a path of development for their new baby. The DSL staff will provide lifelong educational services for the entire family.
What is the significance of March 21?
March 21st is World Down Syndrome Day; Down syndrome is a genetic condition when a person has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.
DSL is celebrating the lives of people with Down syndrome with our 321 Facebook Campaign. Visit Down Syndrome of Louisville on Facebook and meet our children and adults by reading their stories of achievement. Our goal is to raise $21,000 for DSL’s Lifelong Learning Center.
How do you balance your job and your personal life?
My style is to be 100 percent engaged in my endeavors on behalf of Down Syndrome of Louisville. A separate 100 percent is dedicated to my family and our 10 grandchildren. I do not bring my briefcase into the house in the evenings (it is in my car in case of emergencies). Over the years, I developed a daily 14-hour schedule that includes business appointments and those invaluable experiences with my husband, children and grandchildren. My husband and I have a pact that we do not bring work on vacations and weekend trips.
What is the biggest life lesson you have learned?
I have come to realize that people are placed in our paths to lead us toward reaching our dreams. However, you must have the courage and the faith to follow their signals. Justin, my grandson, is my path finder.
Who is your mentor?
My grandfather Rob Winebrenner taught me about creating and maintaining honest and respectful relationships that led to his successful business.
What is best advice you have received in business?
Hard work, planning and persistence — not luck — create opportunities for success!
If you were not in your current job, what would you love to do?
I have my dream job, however in my retirement years I would love to be a water aerobics instructor or a tour guide to tropical destinations.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
As a young child and teenager I was shy and nervous about meeting new friends.
What is your favorite place to eat?
We enjoy locally owned restaurants that offer creative menus, like Havana Rumba.
Where do you like to shop?
What is a treat or a luxury you do for yourself?
I love my weekly Zumba classes! Moving to the fast-paced Latin rhythms is so energizing.
What is your weakness?
Chocolate, of course!
What is your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
What are three things you cannot live without, besides faith, family and friends?
Music, sunshine and laughter.
What are you reading?
I am reading a romantic novel, Finding the Dream by Nora Roberts. Pure escapism.
What are three of your favorite things?
A cuff bracelet embellished with fleur-de-lis, fresh avocados and a Bruno Mars CD.
Thank you, Diana, for enlightening us all and for your dedication to DSL. Each year, an average of 25 babies are born in the Louisville area with Down syndrome. DSL serves close to 2,000 families and their Down syndrome members of all ages, free of charge, for their entire lives. To contribute to the Lifelong Learning Center, click here. Their goal is to raise $21,000.
As always, much gratitude to my FACES photographer Adele Reding and her fantastic work. See her profile here: www.facebook.com