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Youth Inject Energy Into Center For People With Disabilities

John Pingo

There’s a summer-camp feel at a northern Illinois center serving adults with developmental disabilities.

On a recent hot day, chickens pecked at a bucket of food mixed with dried worms.

A young woman made excited gestures and echoed the sound of the clucks.

She was led into the coop by Davontay Lewis, a staff member at the Goldie B. Floberg Centerin Rockton. The center serves dozens of young adults with developmental disabilities.

The center used to be a residential facility, but in recent years, clients have been shifted to smaller group homes in northern Illinois. The center is used for daytime activities like gardening, cooking and socializing.

“You truly have an opportunity to make somebody happy," Lewis said. "I don’t think a lot of jobs, you can necessarily see that.”

He's getting an extra hand this summer.

For the first time, the center is trying out a new volunteer opportunity for family members of Floberg staff. The so-called "Kids Corps" kicked off this year with a dozen children.

Floberg Center CEO John Pingo says many young people’s exposure to people with disabilities involves being told to look away and not stare.

“While it’s well-intentioned, what it does is increase this fear of the unknown. We’re afraid of what we don’t know and don’t understand," Pingo said. “So that’s one of the things we’re hoping to accomplish with Kids Corps is to get young people in and see that people with developmental disabilities are not people to be afraid of. They’re people just like everybody else with hopes and dreams and talents and foibles, just like the rest of us.”

Pingo says the children bring tons of energy to the center. 

“And they’ve just been amazing because kids are so adaptive," he said. "I was kind of nervous. ‘Would they be nervous? Would they be scared?’ And within a couple of days, they knew everybody’s name.”

One mission of the center is to find employment for the adult clients. That’s why the organization started Goldie’s Gourmet Goodies, which makes cupcakes for order in the facility’s in-house kitchen.

This summer, you can find a client confidently chopping chives, flanked by a couple of soon-to-be fourth-graders who are spending their summer working by her side.

Credit Jenna Dooley
Kids Corps member Addisyn Hansen helps chop chives for lemon poppyseed dressing.

One of the them, Addisyn Hansen, says she has helped plant tomatoes, worked in the kitchen, and fed the chickens.

“We get to help people," she said, "and sometimes it’s a challenge to find stuff which is fun and we find all different kinds of stuff and we chop all different kinds of stuff and my mom would never let me use this.”

That would be a large cutting knife. Rest assured, Cori Delavan is keeping a close eye on the youngest helpers. Delavan is a staff member at the Floberg Center as the director of business partnerships; she focuses on matching skills for jobs with the adult clients.

“I try to find out what they enjoy doing, what they like doing, and what they are capable of doing," Delavan explains. "Then we try to create a job around that and try to put them in one of the micro businesses that we already have that they would enjoy.”

This summer, she says, she's glad to have the additional help with the Kid Corps members like Addisyn.

“They are here to help them learn,” Delavan said. "A lot of times, they are reading with them. They are down there working with the adults in the garden."

Grace Pingo says it’s a chance to spend the summer with her friends and help others learn new skills. Her favorite part?

“Helping everyone, and kind of like teaching them what to do and what to use,” Pingo said.

There are less desirable jobs that the kids seem to enjoy the most. Laura Speer works in fund development at the Floberg Center and checked in with her son Oscar about some of chores he’s volunteered for. Oscar excitedly told her about cleaning the cages for the center’s pet snakes.

Speer says it has been nice to work alongside her young children and to see how well the adult clients have responded to the extra injection on energy this summer. Speer says it's been a challenge worth taking.

Jenna Dooley has spent her professional career in public radio. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University and the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois - Springfield. She returned to Northern Public Radio in DeKalb after several years hosting Morning Edition at WUIS-FM in Springfield. She is a former "Newsfinder of the Year" from the Illinois Associated Press and recipient of NIU's Donald R. Grubb Journalism Alumni Award. She is an active member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and an adjunct instructor at NIU.