Angels among us

Down syndrome nonprofit spreads awareness

by Suzanne Magnus

Like many family-focused nonprofits, Anna’s Angels was born out of love. The organization was founded in 2003 by Michelle Pfeiffer of Cary and her husband, Andrew Merrills, on behalf of their second child, Anna, who was born with Down syndrome.

As an infant, Anna underwent eye surgery and also was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), a type of cancer that is more prevalent in people with Down syndrome. Pfeiffer stopped working at her full-time job to stay home with Anna, who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time Pfeiffer’s third child was born. Even though she was busy caring for her three children, Pfeiffer’s strong internal drive was telling her to do more. The result was the formation of Anna’s Angels, which Pfeiffer and Merrills created to raise research funds for Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham.

After building an excellent infrastructure for Down syndrome research at Duke over the past nine years — including a Down syndrome registry and Biobank last year — Pfeiffer moved the focus to funding programs that would improve the cognitive and communicative ability of individuals with Down syndrome.

“When Anna was born, I spent hours and hours researching everything I could find about Down syndrome,” she says. “I felt that knowledge was power, and I wanted to know everything I could about Anna’s condition. That desire to do something beneficial for Anna and other families facing similar circumstances led to the creation of the Anna’s Angels Foundation.”

The Cary-based nonprofit has a team of dedicated volunteers who help Pfeiffer coordinate a variety of fundraising activities throughout the year, including a spring and fall fashion show and an annual gala. Past fundraising efforts also have included a 10-mile run. But each year, the main fundraising event is the annual gala, which was held March 9 at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary for the 10th straight year. Pfeiffer spent months gathering an impressive array of donated auction items, including deluxe vacation packages and diamond jewelry. The event has been emceed for the past nine years by ABC News 11 anchor Steve Daniels, who also serves on the foundation’s board of directors.

Reaching new heights
This year, Pfeiffer was able to secure a special guest speaker who truly was an inspiration to everyone who attended or who has been touched by Down syndrome: “Glee” actress Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome.

Pfeiffer spent hours trying to secure Potter for the 10th anniversary, and as with many things Pfeiffer does she ultimately was successful. Potter also was gracious enough to spend some time the following day to meet and greet her fans at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh.

Anna’s Angels raised $108,600 during this year’s gala, surpassing the foundation’s goal of raising $1 million. All funds raised go directly toward research efforts at Duke to improve the cognitive and communicative ability of individuals with Down syndrome.

Pfeiffer’s dedication to the cause recently led to some special recognition from Duke University Medical Center, which recently named a conference room after Anna, Anna’s Angels, and the Pfeiffer and Merrills families.

“We are pleased to have the opportunity to recognize Anna’s Angels, Michelle and the Merrills family for their dedication to helping fund our research efforts to enhance the lives of individuals with Down syndrome,” says Dr. Priya Kishnani, division chief of medical genetics in the Department of Pediatrics at Duke. “The commitment of this family, the organizations’ board members, and everyone who supports Anna’s Angels is tremendous and truly is an inspiration.”

Duke recently hired its first Down syndrome resource specialist for the hospital’s Down Syndrome Clinic, a subspecialty service of the Duke division of genetics in the Department of Pediatrics. Ishan Munshi, who has Down syndrome, began work as a resource specialist following the completion of his studies at UNC-Greensboro in May. The Duke program offers specialized services for individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

Pfeiffer already is planning to branch out and grow Anna’s Angels in other regions of the country and currently is working with a Charlotte couple who have a child with Down syndrome. The couple, who have been active in Anna’s Angels and have attended the gala for several years, are working with Pfeiffer to establish the same type of event in Charlotte. Anna’s Angels also is tentatively planning a fundraising gala in Seattle, which is home to board of directors member Kelly McNelis, an avid supporter of the foundation.

“It’s quite simple: The more money we raise for Down syndrome research, the greater the likelihood that we can help children who have Down syndrome reach their greatest potential,” Pfeiffer says. “I am excited to start the next chapter in growing Anna’s Angels so that we can maximize our fundraising efforts and fund additional research projects.”

Suzanne Magnus is a marketing and public relations professional based in Raleigh.

To learn more

Anna’s Angels is a Cary-based nonprofit that helps raise funds for research efforts at Duke Children’s Hospital to improve the cognitive and communicative ability of individuals with Down syndrome. Each year, the organization hosts a gala to raise further awareness, with next year’s event scheduled for March 22. To learn more, call (919) 604-3350 or visit