NEAR WEST SIDE — Promising a state-of-the-art fitness center for both the neighborhood and its own students with autism, Easterseals launched a $12 million fundraising campaign as it broke ground on the facility Wednesday.
The 26,000-square-foot center will be an addition to the nonprofit's Chicago area headquarters, at 1939 W. 13th St. Built in 2008, the Terrence J. Hancock Family Campus provides therapeutic education for 120 children and 30 adults with autism spectrum disorder and other special needs through the Easterseals Academy.
The fitness center, which will be open to the community on evenings and weekends, will house a gymnasium, running track, fitness area and auditorium with a stage. Clune Construction will build the center, which is slated to open next summer.
Easterseals is building a 26,000-square-foot fitness, health and recreation center that will feature a basketball court, running track, kitchen pantry and event space, locker rooms and an auditorium. [Provided/Easterseals]
Easterseals officials said they had hoped to build the fitness center at the same time as the rest of the campus, but state funds ran dry during the recession and delayed the project. About a year ago, Easterseals decided it could wait no longer, President and CEO Tim Muri said.
"We knew our kids deserved this, so we said let's roll up our sleeves and do it," Muri said Wednesday. "So when we open the doors [on the fitness center], it will be the culmination of a dream we had 15 years ago."
Having so much time to reflect on its plans mean Easterseals will deliver a facility that meets the community's needs, Muri said. One late addition, for example, was a second-floor track that Easterseals realized the neighborhood lacked.
The first floor of the fitness center will have a large gymnasium and basketball court, with a second-floor track and fitness area overlooking them. [Provided/Easterseals]
While they've raised some money privately, officials hope a public campaign will help secure the rest of the $12 million cost of the new facility. Some major donors already have secured naming rights for the campus, track and locker rooms and garden and calming rooms, although other naming rights still are available to donors.
Among the contributors are Teamsters Local Union No. 731, Terrence J. Hancock, SCB developers, RoccoVino's Italian Restaurant and St. Ignatius College Prep.
For Easterseals Academy students, the new fitness center will be a place for adapted physical education tailored to their individual needs.
Children with autism exhibit a wide range of behaviors, but some common factors are hypersensitivity to bright lights or loud noises, being nonverbal and difficulty socializing.
Having a recreation area with nonflorescent lighting and stress-relieving activities are key aspects to mitigate those frustrations, Muri said. But for the most part, the fitness center will look no different than a typical gym.
Joining the main Chicago Easterseals campus on the Near West Side will be a new $12 million fitness center for students with autism and other special needs. [Provided/Easterseals]
"The goal is to make these kids feel as much as possible that they're part of their peer groups and kids their age," Muri said. "So you wouldn't notice anything too different" at the center.
Easterseals began in Ohio a century ago as the National Society for Crippled Children. Its annual Easter campaign in which donors received stationery seals to signal their support eventually led to the organization adopting the name of its overwhelmingly popular Easter Seals campaign.
While Easterseals exists nationwide, its Chicago chapter serves 33,000 clients each year, providing them with programs like Camp Friendship, Head Start, caretaker respite and Easterseals Academy.
The academy is approved by the Illinois State Board of Education as a referral site for students 3-21 years old with autism, emotional or intellectual disabilities or developmental delays.
Along with Common Core-aligned instruction, students also receive speech therapy, vocational training, art therapy and behavioral consultation.