by Eric A Thomas
In 1959, Robert Manlove from the Illinois Division of Vocational Rehabilitation met with Jacksonville educators Robert Blazier and Harry Emerick. The three started talking about establishing a program to rehabilitate people back to community living. A woman named Jackie Hanback began working with them and using volunteers in school classrooms during the summer. With eight individuals going through their program, Elm City Center was born.
They moved their class that year to a rented space above what was previously the Times Theater East State Street. As their community of people that they served grew, they moved to other locations to accommodate the size. In 1974, they purchased their current building, located at 1314 W. Walnut St. in Jacksonville. Over the years they have acquired adjacent properties and built additions onto the existing structure; as of today, Elm City Center is on 14.5 acres of land and has approximately 100,000 square feet under its roof.
In 1995, they expanded their services by purchasing the Illinois Power business office building on North Main Street. This was meant to be used as a social center for the individual after-hours. Some of the activities hosted there include cooking classes, playing bingo on Wednesday nights, watching TV, playing pool, using the computers, exercising, doing crafts, and playing cards or board games. The facility is named after long-time supporter and member of the board, Clyde L. York. They still host activities there, but due to the pandemic everything has been curtailed.
In addition to the day programming and after-hours, Elm City Center — in 2012 with the closure of Jacksonville Developmental Center — opened their first CILA, or Community Integration Living Arrangement. Today, they operate a total of three CILAs that serves up to a total of 12 people. In addition, they provide services to 16 individuals living in group homes or apartment complexes owned by Morgan County Housing Authority. They also provide services to individuals who live in over 20 apartments or their own homes throughout the Jacksonville area.
Elm City Center serves residents from the counties of Morgan, Sangamon, Pike, Green, Cass and Scott. In the 63 years of their existence, they have served well over 1,000 individuals. They have had only four people as executive directors: Perry Hensley (1966–1968), Betty J. Teaford (1969–2001), Tom Frederick (2001–2019) and the current executive director, David Pennell, who took over the helm on July 1, 2019. There are 65 dedicated full-time and part-time staff that oversee those involved in the various programs. One thing these employees have in common is they enjoy making a difference in the quality of life of the individuals they assist.
Many local small businesses utilize Elm City Center’s clientele services to assemble kits and products for shipment to their customers across North America. The shipments often go to large and small retail chains, distribution centers and individual buyers. The clientele working these jobs receive a paycheck every Friday for the work completed the previous week. These jobs require skills such as remembering instructions, meeting quality standards, hitting the volume of work needed and completing a task within a set timeframe in order to ship the product out for delivery. Their specialty production equipment, flexible workforce, and special skills with experience provide high-quality work.
Another service provided by a limited number of individuals is a lawnmowing service. Their main client is the State of Illinois as they have mowed the lawns on the massive grounds of the former Jacksonville Developmental Center since its closure in 2012. The contract with the state limits their activity to basic mowing and those operating the commercial grade lawnmowing equipment take great pride in the work. They have also kept all the fields associated with Jacksonville Area Baseball mowed for the last several years.
In addition to these services already mentioned, they offer paper shredding to anyone who is in need. Each week they shred and bail tons and tons of documents, then send them on to Chicago and Quincy for recycling. For businesses in Jacksonville and South Jacksonville, they can provide containers to receive the documents and they also provide pickup service. The cost is 17 cents per pound with a $5.00 minimum, and that covers the shredder and its transport. The service gives the business the peace of mind that sensitive documents can be handled, but without the use of their own manpower.
Elm City Center individuals already work in various ways for many area businesses. They package parts kits for Dickey-John, build and stock end of aisle displays for Reynolds Consumer Products, assemble components for CCK Automations, package fireplace bricks for Rutland and they handle Serious Lip Balm products. Counting, bundling, inspecting, packaging, boxing, taping, sealing, cleaning or anything that can be taught is what keeps their workshop humming.
For Serious Lip Balm, Elm City Center hosts their “World Headquarters,” where their products are manufactured, packed and shipped. As the popularity of their products grow, this is job security for the clients. They are shipping Serious Lip Balm products to places like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, and various other locations across Jacksonville and other parts of the country.
Despite COVID-19, Elm City Center is in operation every day to serve the customers that need their help. They have adapted to keep everyone safe and have also altered schedules and modified access to keep classes from cross-contamination. Several protocols are in place and are closely monitored for compliance. Their daily participants have been reduced from 140 down to 105. Once the pandemic is over, they expect to see those numbers go back to normal.
Businesses or organizations that wish to utilize Elm City Center’s services are encouraged to contact them at 217-245-9504. To be involved with one or more of their programs, a person needs to be referred to the agency by a school, social service program or government agency, family, employer or other interested individuals. To be eligible, one must be at least 18 years old and have a documented vocational, educational, mental or physical disability. He or she must also be free of any contagious disease and must not behave in a way that is harmful to self, others, staff or property.