Michelle Pfeiffer’s “Best of All”

Michelle Pfeiffer, board president of Gigi’s Playhouse and Cary Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement award winner

22 years ago, Cary resident Michelle Pfeiffer gave birth to her second child — a baby girl named Anna. Born with Down syndrome and well loved by her parents, little Anna’s story helped set into motion what would become a cherished and much-needed staple in our community: GiGi’s Playhouse Raleigh, centrally located in Downtown Cary.

“When I was holding this little baby, I never would have dreamed that we would have a Down syndrome achievement center in the center of our town,” said Pfeiffer. “I never believed something like that could be possible.”

Like many parents of children with Down syndrome, Pfeiffer and her husband started their journey with more questions than answers.

“I had really never been around many individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, so it was kind of a whole new world for us,” admitted Pfeiffer. “I was just looking for books and information. Neither one of us could really pull on anything; we had to sort of learn from it.”

Pfeiffer, who had been a senior manager at MCI — a telecommunications company since bought by Verizon — stepped away from her corporate career following Anna’s birth, dedicating herself fully to Anna’s care.

Pfeiffer’s daughter, Anna, has benefited greatly since Gigi’s Playhouse opened its doors to the community in 2016.

“When Anna was born she had an irregular white cell condition, so they followed her closely,” said Pfeiffer. “Individuals with Down syndrome who have that irregular cell condition have a higher percentage of developing leukemia. Unfortunately, when she was a year and a half, she did develop leukemia.”

It was devastating news, to be sure — but strangely enough, Anna’s extra chromosome would actually help in her fight against acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

“Dr. Rosoff told us that individuals with Down syndrome and that particular type of leukemia actually have a higher survival rate than patients without the condition,” said Pfeiffer. “The chemotherapy she received was less, and she didn’t have to receive as many drugs as somebody who didn’t have Down syndrome. So we just started talking and trying to understand that.”

Pfeiffer and her husband, Andrew Merrills, knew they could do more — and with encouragement from Dr. Philip Rosoff at Duke Children’s Hospital, Pfeiffer started Anna’s Angels in November 2003, with the modest goal of raising $5,000 to launch a single research study. To date, the nonprofit has raised about $2 million.

“I did Anna’s Angels for a long time, but then I became part of the startup for GiGi’s Playhouse,” said Pfeiffer, now acting board president. “I felt like the National Institutes of Health really started putting more funds into Down syndrome research, so I felt OK about stepping down from fundraising.”

For those who aren’t familiar, GiGi’s Playhouse is one of 58 Down syndrome achievement centers throughout the country dedicated to providing a place for families to celebrate their child and benefit from free, purposeful programming.

“The current executive director of GiGi’s is from Chicago, and she saw a GiGi’s up there and wanted to bring one here to the Raleigh area,” said Pfeiffer. “She was trying to reach out to families here to find out who would be on this startup team, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love to help! I’m in.’”

Michelle Pfeiffer (center) works on a writing program with her daughter, Anna Merrills, at Gigi’s playhouse in Cary. At left is literacy coordinator Kaylee Saunders and adult program manager Becky Tumbling.

Taking a position in outreach, Pfeiffer used her intrinsic love for the community to help spread the word about what GiGi’s was all about.

“When we did our grand opening, we had like 300 people come, because it’s really something that this community has needed — they’ve needed a place to go,” said Pfeiffer. “There’s so much free programming that’s offered here, from literacy, math, and speech. Usually families have to pay for all that, but when they come to GiGi’s, they don’t. We have over a thousand families in our database.”

While Pfeiffer tends to downplay her role, Michelle Schwab — vice president of GiGi’s Playhouse, and former member of its startup team — has seen the impact that Pfeiffer has made firsthand.

“Honestly, Michelle is grace personified,” said Schwab. “She never takes credit for any of the amazing things she does. She always gives credit to the team or to someone else. Michelle works hard and gives so much of her time and energy to GiGi’s and the IDD community. She is willing to do anything for anyone, and she is always thinking of how to improve and grow the playhouse.” Pfeiffer and her husband, Andy, recently celebrated 30 years of marriage in Bermuda alongside all three of their children.

Pfeiffer pictured with her daughter, Anna — one of her three children.

“Our oldest, he’s graduated from college and is now in investment banking in Charlotte,” said Pfeiffer. “Anna, who has Down syndrome, is a very busy gal. She has three jobs — she works at Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, 321 Coffee, and she’s also an intern at NC State in the football equipment room. We have a third, and she is a junior at UNC Chapel Hill studying biology and chemistry. It’s fun as a mom watching them grow up and find their passions.”

The biggest thing that Pfeiffer has learned, she says, as both a mom and in her role at GiGi’s, is to not set limits on anyone.

“Whenever you meet someone, it’s very easy for us to come up with some preexisting thought as to what they can or cannot do,” said Pfeiffer. “Just don’t. At GiGi’s, we celebrate every accomplishment, and we call it the ‘best of all.’ It’s different for everybody, what their ‘best of all’ is, but I have learned not to put limits on anybody — not just with Down syndrome, but in life.”

In 2013, Pfeiffer was recognized as a Woman of Western Wake for her work with Anna’s Angels. In 2023, Pfeiffer was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Cary Magazine’s Women of Western Wake Forum, honoring her years of service to the community.

“Michelle is deserving of this award because she truly has dedicated her life to this cause,” said Aimée McIntyre, who met Pfeiffer at the first-ever gala for Anna’s Angels. “She’s innovative and progressive, always seeking to bring awareness, fresh ideas, and new partners to the table.”

Pfeiffer, who says she was “surprised and honored” to receive the award, credits much of GiGi’s success to the Town of Cary and their tremendous and ongoing support. To Pfeiffer, community is key — especially for the parents of a child with Down syndrome.

“My advice to parents is to get connected to a support group, to a GiGi’s that’s around you,” advised Pfeiffer. “If there’s not a brick and mortar for you to walk into, virtually connect with someone. There are so many resources for you, and you don’t have to do it by yourself. You don’t have to figure it out on your own. There’s so many people who are willing to help you! Get connected.”


  • Rosemary Campbell says:

    Michelle is such an amazing person along with her family. They give so much to our Gigi’s community. It’s such a pleasure to be in her presence.

  • Scott Korbin says:

    Congratulations on the continued growth and success of your family. And thank you for all that you are doing for our community. Most importantly, I pray for your continued good health and happiness.

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