Two years after purchasing the old nursing home and one year after they wanted to move in, Caritas is putting the finishing touches on a colorful new facility.
Gone are most of the old drab tiles and two-tone walls. “Neighborhoods” have sprouted in their place, with gray, sidewalk-like tiles leading to each miniature “house” where the young residents stay.
The St. John Bosco Children’s Center cares for children between the ages of 6 and 13 in a “long-term treatment program” with an emphasis on trauma therapy. Working with children who have been abused or neglected, it is one of the only centers like it in Southern Illinois. In the past year, it has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of children it serves, according to CEO Gary R. Huelsmann.
“The kids love it,” Huelsmann said. “They just can’t wait (to move in).”
The new center still looks like an old nursing home from the outside. The building has all the characteristics of the 1970s, from the uninviting mismatched brick to the wood overhang circling much of the roof.
Walk inside, however, and you might wish to move in yourself.
There are meeting rooms for the children and their foster parents, open areas at the end of residential wings with boardgames and a TV, and spaces St. Bosco plans to rent out to other nonprofits to create a center where people throughout the community can access a variety of services.
One nonprofit includes Hoyleton Ministries, which is opening a location for young mothers between the ages of 17 and 20.
When you have a nice, clean, fun, friendly environment, you feel more welcome
Elke Hansen, the regional director of Caritas
Elke Hansen, the regional director of Caritas, which covers 46 counties in Southern Illinois, said that a well-designed and welcoming environment plays an important role in addressing some of the issues children at the St. John Bosco Children’s Center face.
“I think it will have a positive impact,” she said. “When you have a nice, clean, fun, friendly environment, you feel more welcome.”
Hansen has been the regional director at Caritas for three-and-a-half years, and she’s been in the field of child welfare for more than 20. She loves the new building. A more attractive environment means less property destruction, and both staff and children feel more pride in Caritas and the facility, she said.
In addition to the new rooms, which have new beds and built-in dressers, the Bosco Children’s Center also features new offices for caseworkers and staff. In one section on the second floor, Caritas tore down a wall to create an open floor plan that overlooks a playground, and other offices have been converted from old patient rooms.
It was challenging to buy, remediate and move in to the building, Huelsmann said. Some places contained asbestos. Bathrooms had to be enlarged. Boxes still line the halls.
Much of the money for Caritas’ operations is through consent decree, which means the organization is not affected by the Illinois budget crisis, but Caritas paid for the building and renovations by itself. It spent $3.5 million to buy and upgrade the nursing home. The foundation took out two bank loans and is raising money to renovate a boy’s wing. It’s about $15,000 short of its $200,000 goal, Huelsmann said. Administration has adapted, forgoing renovation in kitchens, for example.
There were also many layers of oversight that Caritas had to satisfy. Caritas, which means “charity” in Latin, had to get occupancy permits, approval from state and local fire marshals, signatures from the health department, a green light from the Attorney General on compliance with the Americans with Disability Act, as well as other confirmations and consents.
For the services Caritas can provide, however, the input was worth it. Additions include a brand-new wing for up to 10 girls. It will also be able to serve 20 boys in two more wings.
Despite the welcoming environment, the Bosco Children’s Center tries to get children back into homes as soon as possible, within six to 12 months.
No one should grow up in a group facility, Huelsmann said, and in addition to the new place, Caritas has revamped its approach to therapy. Still, the more successful the center is at getting children back into homes, the more referrals they receive.
The Bosco Children’s Center, which cares for about 900 children in the region, is increasing the number of residential beds by a third. Before the new center opened, some had to relocate to a place in the north where there was a facility that could help them.