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AEC Cares Provides a Head Start on Chicago’s South Side

Architects team up with industry partners for a day-long building blitz at an early childhood education center

By Mike Singer

A day before the start of AIA Convention 2014, with its theme of “Design with Purpose,” nearly 150 design and building industry volunteers spent the day with paint brushes and power tools to create a more functional and attractive space for Head Start and other pre-school learning programs in one of Chicago’s most distressed neighborhoods.

In the South Side Chicago community of Englewood, around the Arthur Libby Elementary School annex, fewer than 33 percent of adults have a high school diploma, and 46 percent of the residents are unemployed. But a wide swath of design and construction industry professionals in town for the AIA convention gave their time in the hopes that the next generation of Southside residents to explore these refurbished halls will have brighter education and career prospects. Reed Construction Data, Hanley Wood, and the AIA organized and contributed to the day-long “building blitz,” inside this two-story structure designed to serve children six weeks to five years old. In addition to offering Head Start classes, the facility also offers family services, such as legal aid, job readiness programs, nutrition and health counseling.

Laurie Sedio, executive director of Midway Chicago Metropolitan Family Services, the non-profit that will manage the facility, was on hand yesterday to see the transformation of this school annex building into a refurbished Learning and Wellness Center that offers childcare and early education for families below federal poverty guidelines. “This is the second phase of our makeover,” said Sedio of the 25-year old building that her agency now leases for a dollar a year from the City of Chicago. “It was a lot of work just to get the building licensed and opened in February this year, and now because of the creativity of architects, it will become a really inviting and welcoming and happy environment that intensifies our teachers’ efforts.”

Design with (local) purpose

“This day illustrates why we do what we do; because we really care,” said AIA First Vice/President-Elect Elizabeth Chu Richter, FAIA, paint roller in hand. “I can’t wait to see [kids’] faces when they come in here, and see all the colors and the brightness, and it’s just like, ‘Wow, I want to be here, I want to come here everyday.’ And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to open dozens more pre-school centers like this city-wide. Emmanuel visited the center last Friday with former President Bill Clinton, reading to children and stressing the importance of preparing kids for school with early childhood programs.

“It’s a stark contrast to what children are leaving outside their doors,” added Jennifer Alexander, program director of early childhood education for Metropolitan Family Services. “They get to see what quality looks like. Children and families deserve to be in an environment they can take ownership of.”

‘The environment is critical to early development’

“When I first walked in here and looked down the corridor—this long and massive dungeon corridor—I was thinking, ‘My God, is this juvenile detention?’” said Ric Master, AIA, a past president of AIA Chicago, and senior manager of sustainability for USG. “It felt very sterile, harsh, industrial. It is being repurposed with bright colors, including horizontal stripes on hall ceilings and bands of polka dots on hallway walls. It’s going to feel welcome and happy and lively. It’s exciting.”

Master championed this year’s project with USG Interiors, which donated nearly 32,000 feet of acoustical ceiling tiles and additional resources through the USG Foundation. Master reached out to Chicago architects to do pro-bono work, resulting in five architect-led teams.

“It’s like this diamond in the middle of a neighborhood that doesn’t have some of the newness that this project has today,” said Beth Mascitti-Miller, chief officer for early childhood education for the Chicago Public Schools. “You have this high-quality structure available for families that don’t always get that. This says, ‘We value you and we value your child.’ The environment is critical to early development.”

Organized by the construction and architecture non-profit AEC Cares, the day of service is the brainchild of Laura Marlow, senior director of strategic partnerships at Reed Construction Data, and Mike Waldinger, Hon. AIA, executive director of AIA Illinois.

Marlow worked with the City of Chicago to find Metropolitan Family Services and the Libby Elementary School annex for this year's project. "Almost all of the products we used today were donated,” said Marlow. “We had a little bit over $100,000 in donated materials, including carpet, paint, ceiling tiles, vinyl, window shades, cabinetry, and countertops. AEC Cares is a very unique partnership that brings together design and construction industry professionals. Today, we have been able to turn this worn-out school into a learning center that is vibrant, colorful and beautiful. When kids walk in tomorrow morning, they will be amazed by what they see."

During the past three years, AEC Cares service days have provided legacy gifts to AIA convention host cities, including repairs to Katrina-damaged homes in New Orleans, renovations of a facility serving at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., and renovations of a homeless shelter in Denver.

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AEC Cares volunteers representing the AIA, Hanley Wood, and Reed Construction Data donated their time to renovate Metropolitan Family Services’ Learning and Wellness Center in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Image courtesy of Bob Rundgren.

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Volunteers sort through acoustic ceiling tiles. AEC Cares received more than $100,000 in donated materials, including 32,000 square feet of new ceil tile. Image courtesy of Bob Rundgren.

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The new Learning and Wellness Center is housed in a 25-year old elementary school annex building. Image courtesy of Bob Rundgren.

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Many volunteers focused on painting, adding fresh bright colors to the formerly institutional-looking school building. Image courtesy of Bob Rundgren.

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Recent Related:

When It Takes a Village : AIA members help to build new youth center in Southeast D.C. during 2012 AIA Convention

A Beacon of Hope for Denver’s Homeless Population


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