By Ashley Alt
For nearly 50 years, the Center for Enriched Living, based in Riverwoods, has been the place for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to meet friends, learn, enjoy new experiences, and become active members of their communities.
The CEL began in 1968 when two concerned mothers sought out after-school programming for their children with developmental disabilities. After approaching a social worker at a local community center, the two children were integrated into programs relative to their disabilities. As the programs evolved to include social and independent-living activities for people of all ages with developmental disabilities, the CEL was officially established as the successful nonprofit that it is today.
After becoming an independent agency in 1984 holding 60 members, it has since then grown exponentially, now serving over 450 individuals annually.
CEL’s Director of Program Services Melissa Juarez oversees the program piece of the organization, from social programs, leisure programs, and employment as well as anything behind-the-scenes like training and volunteering.
“There aren’t enough choices out there for people with developmental disabilities,” Juarez told us. “So a big part of my job is to work on collaborating with other organizations to see what we can do.”
Juarez, having been with the Center for 10 years now, has contributed immensely to the organization’s direction and focus. She started in the field of training and development 36 years ago helping kids, and later adults, primarily with vocational programming. While searching for a different path down the road, she came across CEL and fell in love with the organization itself, the staff, its members, everything.
Historically the Center only provided programs to individuals that were more independent, but that focus shifted when Juarez spoke up.
“Why are we only offering programs to to those who are more independent?” She asked herself and her team. “We need to offer and serve people of all abilities, and through a wide variety of ages.”
Ever since that forthcoming, and keeping the nonprofit’s philosophy, “Person first, person driven,” in mind, CEL has been serving folks that never would have come to take part in a Center program, developmental disabilities including Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, PW, Fragile X and Dual Diagnosis.
Now serving 45 different communities in the Chicago area, Juarez is currently meeting with families to try and pin the right location for a day program and recreation programs.
While there are other organizations in the Chicago area offering programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, Juarez stresses there are still not enough choices for recreation for people with Intellectual Developmental Disabilities.
“The biggest difference about us is that we listen to our members.” She tells us. “We may have the same general program ideas as other organizations, but we do everything we can to be creative in providing new experiences for our members.”
What Juarez means is that people with developmental disabilities “only know what they know,” and typically aren’t introduced to new things very often. The CEL team is very proactive in coming up with new program planning so every member can enjoy new, fun experiences in the city.
A recent success project that came out of this notion was a game of WhirlyBall, where members loved it and asked to play again. A lot of their activities happen in the summer where they attend Summer Fest, Music in the Park, and other events.
Another initiation that Juarez took part in was CEL’s employment program. As families started asking CEL if they could provide assistance in getting their son/daughter a job, the employment program was born. Juarez and her team are working closely with businesses in the community, schools and Board Members to educate companies on employing people with intellectual disabilities and how to customize a job to meet the needs of both employee and employer. The program is almost one year old, and is getting a lot of buzz so far.
“Life happens in a big way at CEL,” Juarez remarked. “Our core values reflect that for both our staff and our members – from working hard and leading the way to doing every job with integrity and fun, and most importantly, empowering our members to make their own choices.”
Speaking on behalf of CEL’s members, Juarez explains that their world opens up at the organization. The removal of physical barriers leads to greater independence, and the removal of language barriers allows members to be seen as a person, not as a disability.
“It’s a great place to see growth in people happen.”
What started as a social recreational facility for children is now a fully functioning nonprofit organization for young adults and adults, life-changing for everyone who gets involved.