Longtime employees say there's no comparison between the new Ray Graham Association community learning center in Lombard and the old location just a few doors down.
"It's like we went from living in an apartment to living in a house," said Gloria Hickey, a direct support professional who has worked at the center for 13 years.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held last Friday at the new center, which now fills a space once occupied by an expressive arts school at 1108 N. Main St.
The association's community learning centers offer adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities a place to go to interact with others and learn life and career skills.
"We don't baby-sit people. We want to change people's lives," said Caren Musembi, director of community and family support services.
Many of the adults live with their families or in nearby integrated living arrangements. Some have jobs in the community, while others spend time volunteering.
When the disabled adults visit the center they keep busy with a variety of activities that help their development, from arts and crafts to resume building on a computer.
"The services don't change, but the environment, I do believe, has a big impact," Musembi said of the new center.
Besides more space, Musembi said improved features at the new location, such as a washer and dryer and a full kitchen, will provide more learning opportunities for the adults.
The facility is more secure than the last one, with a buzzer at the front entrance and alarms that are activated if an adult wanders off. There are also more bathrooms, a bigger space for the adults to play sports, and exercise and dedicated office and meeting rooms.
The previous location was described by employees as one large, loud room split off by partition walls. It didn't provide a place to escape for adults who sometimes needed time alone.
Now, there are about half a dozen spaces for the adults to go, including a large gathering area where they enjoyed a movie together Friday and smaller rooms with different activities for them to choose from.
One new feature that is especially exciting for the staff is a sensory room, where adults can go if they need a private moment. Inside, there are bean bag chairs and, eventually, soothing music that is especially helpful for adults on the autism spectrum, Musembi said.
While the change has been difficult for some of the adults, overall everyone seems pleased to be in the new space, Musembi said.
"Most of them are very, very happy. We've gotten nothing but positive feedback from the families," she said, adding that some parents were brought to tears when they toured the center for the first time earlier this week.