SYCAMORE – Like scores of other parents, Anna Kurtzman has volunteered her time for the past several years as a Boy Scout leader as her son moved through the ranks.
But about a year and a half ago, the Sycamore resident took on a great and very different challenge when her scouting superiors asked her to help start a scouting group for developmentally-challenged teens and adults. Kurtzman had no experience in that realm, but enthusiastically accepted.
“When I first heard about it, I was excited because I knew that our challenged people kind of get shuffled off to the side,” Kurtzman said. “I like being able to help people, and I like teaching people new things.”
Kurtzman’s now-weekly commitment to the Opportunity House – a nonprofit that assists individuals with developmental disorders – and those whom it serves represents the show of community support that the Sycamore-based charity celebrated Thursday at its 50th Anniversary Open House event.
“We’re having this open house to thank the community for supporting Opportunity House over these 50 years, and then also to highlight the fact that it’s this local community support that makes opportunity house’s mission possible,” Program Director Diana Hulst said. “... We’re relying more and more on local support.”
Opportunity House provides group living facilities, training programs, job opportunities and social groups and activities for about 260 people living in DeKalb County, Hulst said. Some of the individuals live in the center’s eight group homes while others live independently in their own apartments or with family.
“Our mission is to help adults with developmental disabilities work, live in homes of their choice and enjoy community life,” Executive Director Bob Shipman said. “There’s been a real need for the services that we offer, both our day programs and residential.”
At the open house, representatives from the nonprofit as well as participants and group leaders, like Kurtzman, met with community leaders and the public.
About 15 years ago, Marc Johnson – then a college student studying health education at Northern Illinois University – began working with athletes at Opportunity House through its Special Olympics program.
“We just did softball at that time,” Johnson said. “I stayed through college, and here I am 15 years later. We’ve grown from one to nine sports and 12 athletes to 112. It’s great to see the growth.”
Now Johnson works year-round with athletes from all backgrounds and capabilities. Over the years, some have qualified for state and even national competition but he’s still holding out for an international qualifier.
“Hopefully someday,” he said.
Kurtzman’s scouting group has already grown to include more than 40 participants. The group learns various life and social skills. They recently turned vegetables from their garden into meals and Thursday they were sewing coin purses.
For Kurtzman there has been a slight learning curve.
“Some people are very independent and can do things easily, and we have other people that need extra help, so trying to tailor a program that handles both of those [can be difficult],” Kurtzman said.
As part of the nonprofit’s developmental training program, 59 individuals participate in a five-day-a-week program that focuses on community integration, daily living skills and social skills, Program Manager Connie Birsa said.
Through the program, participants have volunteered at Meals on Wheels, the YMCA and TAILS Humane Society.
Additionally, several local businesses, including the Voluntary Action Center, Ideal Industries of DeKalb and Mustang Vending employ Opportunity House residents. For that, the nonprofit is grateful.
“The community has been very supportive of what we do, financially as well as just welcoming us in the community,” Shipman said. “It’s a wonderful place to be.”