Despite star's departure, Pujols Family Foundation says it's solid in St. Louis

2011-12-09T00:16:00Z 2012-05-01T10:01:13Z Despite star's departure, Pujols Family Foundation says it's solid in St. LouisBY CYNTHIA BILLHARTZ GREGORIAN • cbillhartz@post-dispatch.com > 314-340-8114 stltoday.com

Todd Mayfield choked up Thursday when he talked about Albert Pujols.

He has no idea how he's going to tell his son Elijah, 15, that his favorite player is no longer a St. Louis Cardinal.

The Mayfields are even more emotionally invested in Pujols than the average baseball fan. Elijah has Down syndrome and has benefited from the Pujols Family Foundation.

"Having to break the news, I've been dreading that all day," said Mayfield, of Jefferson City. "Most of his peers are getting drivers licenses and getting into sports, things that Elijah probably won't get to do. But he gets to go back to school and tell them about hanging out with Albert Pujols."

According to Todd Perry, executive director of the Pujols Family Foundation, those opportunities shouldn't dry up simply because Pujols will play for the Los Angeles Angels.

The foundation, he said, will stay active in St. Louis, though it could expand to include programs in the Los Angeles area. Whether its headquarters remain here, he doesn't know.

"But as far as shutting it down and moving it? Absolutely not," Perry said. "Our commitment was never to the Cardinals. It was to the families of St. Louis who have Down syndrome. This never had anything to do with baseball and the Cardinals. It has to do with love, and supporting people with Down syndrome and their families. He could retire and that won't change."

Albert and Deidre Pujols, who have a daughter, Isabella, 13, with Down syndrome, created the foundation in 2005. Its mission is to serve two groups: local children who have Down syndrome and their families, and poor children in his homeland of the Dominican Republic.

In 2009, the most recent year for which tax records are available, the foundation raised $1.3 million in contributions and grants, more than four times the amount raised by the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis during the same year.

About $90,000 of the Pujols foundation money paid for dental, medical and eye care, bedding, mentoring and baseball programs for children in the Dominican Republic. An additional $527,000 went to more than 60 events in the St. Louis area for children with Down syndrome.

The Pujols Family Foundation primarily provides what it calls "extraordinary experiences for the kids," including father-son fishing tournaments, mother-daughter bowling parties, celebrity sports games, cooking classes and self-defense and conflict resolution classes.

The foundation also hosts an annual prom, which drew 500 teenagers with Down syndrome from as far as Chicago to the Kemp Auto Museum in October.

None of the foundation's money goes to research, and very little, if any, goes to other organizations that offer support to families with Down syndrome.

"Albert and Dee Dee really wanted to be involved," said Perry. "They didn't want to grant requests and to sit and write out checks. They wanted a hands-on experience. If we have a prom, we'll host it, and it will be the level of excellence that we expect and that these kids deserve."

As for not funding research, Perry said, "It's a Dee Dee call.

"She's often said that if she could give Bella a pill that would make her go from having Down syndrome to being a normal child, she wouldn't do it, because God made her the way she is and that's the way she's meant to be."

The Pujols Family Foundation raises a lot of its money by combining star power with lavish events. A golf tournament in 2009 that raised $548,000 cost $260,000 to put on, while a Christmas celebration gala that raised $300,000 cost about $74,500.

The Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis spent about $42,000 on fundraising last year and raised $301,000. It had to dig into reserves to cover its operating and program costs.

Diane Schuch, executive director of the association, expressed relief upon hearing that the Pujols Family Foundation intended to continue its work here because of its role in raising awareness.

She also said the two groups have collaborated on the association's "Lose the Training Wheels Bike Camp" and hosted a family luncheon together.

But, Schuch said, the two groups have different missions.

"The Pujols Family Foundation provides a lot of social programs, and we provide education, support and information for our families," she said. "We meet different needs."

Perry wasn't sure whether Albert and Dee Dee Pujols would continue traveling back to St. Louis from the West Coast for the events they stage each year.

And that's what has Darla Lawrence of Imperial, crestfallen.

"He's going to live in a different town. I don't see how it can carry on the way it has," she said.

Lawrence, who has an 18-month-old son, Dawson, with Down syndrome, met Deidre Pujols at a luncheon that the foundation hosts each year for new mothers of babies with Down syndrome. She looked forward to the foundation's fishing trips, Grant's Farm outings and the annual prom where Pujols dances with the teenagers.

"By the time (Dawson) is prom age, is that really even going to happen?" she asked.

Blythe Bernhard of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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