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Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association thrives in new space

(Monica Maschak –
Austin Kremer puts his arm around Michael Asher in the kitchen of the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association Sage Center. Kremer and Asher are participants of the Leisure Increases Freedom and Enjoyment (LIFE) Program held twice a week for those who have aged out of school but are not quite ready to be on their own or in the workforce.
(Monica Maschak –
Joel Lenart puts icing on his cookies at the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association Sage Center in Crystal Lake. The Sage Center hosts a twice-a-week transition program for adults who are moving from school to independence.
(Monica Maschak –
Participants of the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association LIFE Transition Program bake and decorated cookies at the Sage Center on Dec. 18.

CRYSTAL LAKE – A colorful tile mosaic welcomes visitors to the renovated half of NISRA’s offices, and gives them a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The artwork shows a piano, colored fruit, an artist’s palette and two hands reaching for each other. Thumbprints of Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association participants also are included.

The mosaic is just the beginning of a 5,600-square-foot renovation of the building, adjacent to NISRA’s administrative offices at 285 Memorial Drive in Crystal Lake. Beyond is a brand-new community room, computer lab, art studio, teaching kitchen and music room.

The Sage Therapeutic Recreation Center, named for its largest donor, was made possible by a brief but effective capital campaign. The association began raising funds in September, and by December had secured enough to move forward. In total, $375,000 was raised through corporate sponsorships and private donations.

“We didn’t want to put a lot of tax dollars into the project,” NISRA Executive Director Brian Shahinian said.

Supported by 13 member park districts and municipalities, NISRA’s board of directors also agreed to kick in $200,000 to complete the project.

The majority of NISRA programs run in the 13 communities as demand for programming grows.

Over a five-year period, total registration has increased 21 percent, Shahinian said. Each year, NISRA serves more than 1,600 individuals with disabilities who sign up for more than 8,000 activities.

What the Sage Therapeutic Recreation Center offers is more specialty programs and a space that participants can call their own.

“There just wasn’t enough space for quality instruction,” said Jim Wiseman, the association’s superintendent of recreation. “There was more demand than there is space in the community.”

The computer room is used to teach Internet and word-processing skills. The community room is complete with couches, a Wii and XBox gaming systems. The brightly lit art studio has adjustable drafting tables and a wheelchair-adaptable, clay-throwing wheel. The music room is available for private music and voice lessons or classes, and the teaching kitchen is fully loaded with new appliances.

With the additional space, the association was able to add a new LIFE skills program. LIFE stands for “Leisure Increases Freedom and Enjoyment.” The lineup is geared toward individuals with mild to moderate disabilities who have aged out of school programs to learn the skills necessary for life on their own.

“One day I would like to have an apartment with all my life skills,” said 24-year-old Ashley Ottaviano, 24, of Elgin.

She and other participants come to the two-day-a-week courses. Recently, the group was baking holiday cookies in the teaching kitchen.

The participants in the LIFE program prepare their own menus, budget money for groceries, and take shopping trips for food. They also learn computer skills and exercise often, but the activities are tailored to their needs and wants.

“I like to eat a lot of food; when they talk about the food, it makes me drool because I like food so much,” 24-year-old participant Michael Asher said with a laugh.

Although it is relishing its new space, the association doesn’t plan to stop. As Shahinian said, the center has “freed us to dream even bigger.”

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