Center for Enriched Living reaches out to most vulnerable

  • Evan takes part in a Center for Enriched Living virtual art class. CEL has moved its programs online and is temporarily offering them for free.

    Evan takes part in a Center for Enriched Living virtual art class. CEL has moved its programs online and is temporarily offering them for free. Courtesy of Jenny Kustra-Quinn

Updated 5/8/2020 1:40 PM

Social distancing is difficult for everyone, but it can be especially lonely and confusing for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDD.

The Center for Enriched Living is responding to the challenges of COVID-19 by moving its programs online and temporarily offering them for free to everyone, not just its members.


CEL provides social and recreational enrichment programs, as well as employment opportunities, for Chicago-area residents with IDD. The programs are typically offered throughout the community and at CEL's state-of-the-art facility in Riverwoods, but now individuals with IDD are exploring the virtual world through a catalog of free opportunities including book club, yoga, virtual travel and adventure, gardening, art classes and even themed dance parties.

The virtual offerings help people with IDD connect with friends, have meaningful interactive experiences and not feel so isolated while they're required to practice social distancing.

"At CEL, we believe in expanding the world of people with IDD. That's even more important now, as we all feel the impact of our physical worlds getting smaller," said Harriet Levy, CEO of CEL.

"These past seven weeks have given us all a tiny glimpse of what many people with IDD have faced their entire lives. Social distancing shows us that we are all hardwired to be connected to each other and reminds us of the importance of community, inclusion and human interaction."

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CEL has been making those connections; reaching out to all current and past members to check in, as well as creating programs to respond to the variety of needs that members are currently facing.

For example, CEL is offering virtual employment programs that give members who have been laid off from their jobs an opportunity to socialize and keep their skills fresh so they will be ready to work when things return to normal.

The programs address topics like professionalism, writing resumes, grooming/hygiene, interviews and job applications. They also incorporate mentoring, tips and advice from CEL members who have achieved success in their jobs.

Employment is a major focus for CEL. The organization partners with local businesses to place people with IDD in jobs that match their skills and interests. The goal is to help reduce the staggering 85 percent unemployment rate among people with IDD.


Another part of CEL's COVID-19 response has been the launch of a PanPals program, where people can write letters to CEL members who are more isolated than most. The letters go to those who are in residential facilities and have little or no access to technology.

Additionally, CEL launched a free Technology Lending Program to assist those members -- and partner agencies -- so they can also connect to CEL's virtual programs.

Levy says CEL will continue to find new, creative methods of reaching people with developmental disabilities and connecting with them in meaningful ways. She says the organization needs support now more than ever to accomplish this.

That's why CEL has transformed its most important fundraiser of the year into a Virtual Chefs' Night that will be held June 29, featuring entertainment, inspiration from CEL members and their families, interactive sessions with chefs and mixologists, and the raffle of a Lexus or $30,000.

Raffle tickets are available for purchase now at Only 1,299 tickets will be sold for $100 for one ticket or $275 for three.

CEL, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, provides programs that focus on social, recreational, employment and educational opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, giving them the opportunity to be fully included in the community, achieve personal fulfillment and enjoy a good quality of life.

The organization serves hundreds of people from at least 50 Chicago-area communities each year. To learn more, visit