KENT COUNTY, Mich. — Alicia Mathieu's world changed after learning her son Levi had Down syndrome.
"You usually think I'm pregnant, and I'm going to have baby. They're going to go college, they're gonna buy their own house, get married, and then you get the diagnosis, and it just stops."
Mathieu discovered her son had the genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome when she was 14 weeks pregnant.
"It was extremely shocking," she told FOX 17 News. "I panicked, really; I didn't know what Down syndrome really was...I knew If God wanted me to have this baby, then I was going to have this baby."
The young mom was determined to keep loving her baby, while learning everything she could about the condition.
"I just started researching. And as soon as I started researching, I found all the negativity out there and all the hard truths," she explained.
When Levi was six months old, Down to Defend was born.
The nonprofit offers resources, and weekly self-defense classes to combat a troubling statistic Mathieu uncovered.
"People with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted at a rate seven times higher than those without disabilities. And so, that was the one thing that kind of stuck out and had my stomach in knots. And I knew that something had to be done," she told FOX 17 News.
Participants learn basic karate techniques, while also building their confidence.
"It has made me feel so much more self-confident and I feel more positive about myself, that I could take care of myself," said Shannon Winnie, who attends the classes. "And, if it wasn't for self-defense classes, I don't think I would be feeling as good about myself."
Down to Defend also works with Mercy Health Saint Mary's to distribute "celebration baskets" to new parents with helpful items and resources.
"We just welcome them to the family that they didn't know they had," said Mathieu. "It's just really a huge family."
The nonprofit is working to expand and add more classes, like CPR, fire prevention and healthy cooking.
Levi will be 4 years old this year.
Mathieu's hope is to make the world he grows up in a better place.
"I really just want inclusion; I want them to have the same opportunity as you and I. And that's not out there right now. That doesn't happen. So that's kind of what keeps me going," she said. "That's really all we want to do is educate and advocate. Those are our two main focuses and just to keep everyone safe."
To learn more about Down to Defend, visit the group's website or Facebook page.
As the FOX 17 and Lake Michigan Credit Union Pay it Forward Person of the Month, Mathieu is receiving a $550 prize.
Know someone who should be featured next month? Nominate them here.
Meet John Redmond, our February 2022 Pay it Forward Person of the Month.