Despite the water-stained ceilings, worn carpeting and rusty baseboards, the chief executive officer of Jawonio thinks the New City campus is beautiful because of what happens there each day.
However, Jill Warner believes it’s time for the facility “to match the good work we’re doing.”
“The work that takes place here can be life-changing. We deal with individuals of all abilities, and we want them to see that anything is possible. We really like to focus on strengths here, not weaknesses,” Warner said.
On a recent afternoon, Jawonio grounds were bustling with activity now that Jawonio’s Summer Education Program, a 6-week day program for those ages 5 to 22 with disabilities that blends education and recreation, was in full swing.
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At a pool toward the back of the grounds, children were eager to cool off from the 90-degree-plus temperatures that day. Some were splashing around, while others, like one 13-year-old camper, needed more help from counselors. After a counselor slowly eased his wheelchair into the water, using a special track installed in the pool, the teen’s face broke into a smile.
Jill Warner, CEO at Jawonio in New City July 8, 2016.Buy Photo
(Photo: Peter Carr/The Journal News)
“I love it here during the summer,” said counselor Kelly Brennan. “This is my second year here and we all turn into this huge family. Getting to know these kids is amazing and to see the strides they make is amazing.”
For almost 70 years, Jawonio has served the area’s special needs population, providing services aimed at advancing the independence and well-being of people with developmental disabilities, behavioral health challenges and chronic medical conditions.
As programs have grown, the original brick building on North Little Tor Road, which was constructed during the 1950s, has been added onto with donated trailers, Warner said.
“We’ve spent a lot of money doing fixes, but about 80 percent of our facility is in disrepair,” Warner said. While the grounds are up to code and not considered unsafe and the grounds crew “does a great job,” it’s just reaching the point where it doesn’t make sense to keep doing Band-Aid fixes.
Jawonio is currently seeking approval from the Clarkstown Planning Board to move forward with an $18 million redevelopment of its 16-acre campus. The scope of work, which would occur in five phases, includes the demolition of several buildings, relocation of three wooden cabins, addition of 379 parking spots, construction of a two-story, 72,091-square-foot building and a 4,000-square-foot cabin.
Day campers at Jawonio in New City July 8, 2016. Buy Photo
(Photo: Peter Carr/The Journal News)
The planning board “is only just beginning the site plan approval process” and the project is on the agenda for Wednesday night’s meeting. An initial State Environmental Quality Review, which is required by law and focuses on environmental impacts, is beginning, according to Clarkstown’s Town Planner Jim Creighton.
Warner said doubling the size of the facility would allow for the incorporation of an integrated health center and job training center for people with special needs.
About 20 years ago, there were discussions of redeveloping the campus, but plans were put on hold after Jawonio saw an increase in enrollment following the closure of Letchworth Village and the board “wanted to put resources into programming,” Warner said.
If the town signs off on the plan, work would begin in June 2017 and end by December 2018, Warner said.
Fast facts about Jawonio
Founded in 1947 after a group of local parents placed an ad in a newspaper, looking to connect with one another to create some type of support system for their disabled children.
The organization’s name was initially “The Rockland County Center for the Physically Handicapped and United Cerebral Palsy Affiliate” but the executive board later changed it “Jawonio,” a Native American word that translates into “independence.”
Camp Jawonio (now known as the Summer Education Program) was Rockland County’s first summer camp for people with disabilities.
Jawonio’s “life span” services reach more than 5,000 children and adults annually in the lower Hudson Valley. Offerings range from early childhood education to job training to therapy to day services.