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A teaching kitchen is one of many easily accessible features in the Lincolnway Special Recreation Association's new center. Wheelchairs can simply slide under the sink or stove and tables can be raised and lowered to accommodate any user.
The tables finally have turned for LWSRA, which struggled for so long to find space for programs for its 200 children and adults with disabilities.
After years of saving, fundraising, and grant seeking, it will celebrate the grand opening of its recreation center from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 21 at 1900 Heather Glen Drive, New Lenox.
For all of its 38 years, LWSRA has relied on space in school and park facilities scattered throughout the six communities it serves New Lenox, Mokena, Frankfort, Manhattan, Peotone and Wilmington.
They moved into their new rec center a couple of months ago and already other community groups have asked to use their indoor athletic space or their non-muddy softball field.
Executive director Keith Wallace said it "felt good" to be able to give back and offer their space to others.
Lincolnway is the only special recreation association to have its own standalone facility, he said.
It is 17,000 square feet of space completely designed with full accessibility in mind at a cost of $4.5 million - including a $2.5 million grant - on five acres owned by the New Lenox Community Park District.
Wallace also credits the foresight of former LWSRA director Lana Graser, who tried to save up $100,000 each year out of a tight budget for this future building.
Without her efforts, "we would not be sitting her today," he said. "We think different. We don't think small or in a closed box."
"Having our own space is rewarding and comforting," Wallace said. "We finally have a home. "When parents bring their kids here, it makes it all worth it."
The "crown jewel" is the gymnasium, where painted lines on the maple floor delineate courts for basketball, bocce ball, softball and volleyball. Nets for a batting cage and volleyball are stored up in the ceiling and can easily be dropped down at the touch of a button.
Hidden from view, but still significant, is ample walk-in storage space for the wheelchairs and athletic equipment, eliminating the need for rented storage units.
In addition to the gym and teaching kitchen, the center has four classrooms, a fitness room, offices, and a comfortable lobby, all equipped with telephones, television screens and security throughout.
Outdoors, a therapy garden will be donated and built by Eagle Scout Collin O'Donnell, of Frankfort, and the wheelchair softball court is one of only seven in the nation, Wallace said. Its surface is similar to a tennis court, allowing the wheelchairs to move easily, but it's painted green and brown to resemble grass and dirt.
The entrance to the recreation center is lined with engraved bricks from donors.
"Everything is a blessing," Wallace said.
When future funds allow, he wants to add an accessible playground on the acreage east of the building.
"It's amazing. We have not stopped to think about where we have been and where we can go," Wallace said. With space and a schedule to call their own, staff will have to discover all the possibilities that await them, he said.
LWSRA still plans to have programs in every community they serve and will continue to use the high school basketball courts to accommodate their many teams.
"The more people we can tell about special recreation the better. The disabled minority group is one you can be added to at any time. Everyone needs to know about it," he said. "Until people are faced with it, they don't know about it."