Illinois Center for Autism opens in Belleville to help more children, families

News-DemocratMay 2, 2013 

The elementary students who attend the Illinois Center for Autism now have a school to call their own and proudly displayed their artwork along the hallways of the newly-renovated building in Belleville.

The close to 100 students the center serves were all cramped into the center's location in Fairview Heights prior to the center purchasing the former Mamie O'Stookey School on Wabash Avenue.

"The Belleville campus, the kids love it," said Misti Medders of Shiloh, who's 11-year-old son Bryant attends school there. "The classrooms look more like classrooms, and there's big windows they can look out. It's more of a school setting at the Belleville campus."

Community members came out Thursday to celebrate the Illinois Center for Autism's expansion into Belleville with a ribbon cutting and open house. Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert welcomed the center to Belleville and offered the city's help to staff members.

The center's Executive Director Susan Szekely explained the center had been looking for an opportunity to expand for several years and was lucky when the building at 1306 Wabash Avenue became available.

However, the 20,000-square-foot building needed a lot of work to accommodate the students the autism center serves.

Assistant Director Troy Metheney described the renovation project as "a labor of love for everyone involved."

The center acquired the building and its contents in June for $340,000, Szekely said, and since has been working on different parts. The center's 38 elementary school students moved into the new Belleville campus in August as the renovation continued in other parts of the building, Szekely said.

The center was extra diligent during the renovation to ensure every point of access to the building was secure, according to Szekely. Security cameras, an intercom system and an alarm system were added to the building.

Medders said she appreciates having a safe place for her son to attend school. "We know that building is safe and secure," she said. "Once I put Bryant on the school bus, I know he's fine. We just couldn't live without it."

In all, the building renovations cost about $300,000, Szekely said, and included new carpeting and paint, asbestos removal and other building modifications. The project partially was funded through donations including $70,000 from the Illinois Autism Development Corporation, $15,000 from AT&T and $12,000 from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

The Fairview Heights campus of the autism center, located on Ruby Lane, now primarily serves 58 middle and high school students. Medders said she is looking forward to her son learning job skills at the Fairview Heights campus when he gets older.

With the addition of another campus, Szekely said the center hopes to expand the services it provides. In all, the autism center educates close to 140 students, aged 3 to 21 years old, including both campuses and six satellite classrooms at schools in Troy and Granite City.

In addition to the day school program, the center also offers client family support services and adult services, which includes operating the Pasta Fare restaurant and Petals Remembered, a preservation floral shop. Both businesses are located in Fairview Heights. Szekely said the center serves 40 adults and more than 200 families.

The mission of the autism center is to help children and adults with autism to achieve their highest level of independence in their home, school and community.

The autism center is a private, non-profit organization, which has served the community for 35 years. It is funded by donations and tuition rates set by law charged to local school districts if the center serves students from that district. Szekely said the center serves students from 35 school districts.

For more information about the center, visit www.illinoiscenterforautism.org or call 618-398-7500.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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