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Updated: June 25, 2013 6:23AM



It’s the faces you remember after visiting a center for the developmentally disabled.

Smiling faces of folks who anxiously reach out to shake hands.

Questioning faces that wonder if a sister is coming to pick them up or if you’re driving them home.

And you especially remember the face of a fellow who hugs tightly onto a pile of stuffed animals as if their lives depend on him.

Garden Center Services for the developmentally disabled held an open house this week at its new training center at 10444 Kedzie Ave., in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community.

About a month ago, I wrote a column about vandals who broke into the organization’s old training center in Burbank, turned on the water faucets and plugged the drains. So much water accumulated in the former convent that it was pouring out of the mortar between the bricks.

Garden Center Services had been planning a move to Mount Greenwood, but along with the vandalism there was theft, and the agency didn’t have funds to replace the damaged computers, furniture and other stuff.

With the state cutting funding to social service agencies and donations down, it was a tough time for the organization to be seeking help.

But on Wednesday it held the open house, and Gerald Beagles, its executive director, said donors had contributed more than the $45,000 needed to replace the damaged and stolen items.

The new building has three stories (including the basement), 15,000 square feet of space and “an elevator,” Beagles said with a smile.

“An elevator,” he repeated, noting how essential it is in a building that serves the physically disabled.

Beagles has been helping the developmentally disabled for more than 40 years and recalled the first time that he stepped into a state institution for them when he was fresh out of college.

“About 20 men were in the unit, and half of them were without clothes,” Beagle said. “They were completely naked.”

Today, at Garden Center Services and other such agencies, he emphasized, “we give our clients jobs. We give them homes. We give them a life.”

He could have added the word “dignity.”

Garden Center Services has 40 people in its day program in Mount Greenwood and supports 150 adults in three buildings and 14 residential homes.

It has an art gallery and studio at 17459 Oak Park Ave., Tinley Park. The original works of the client artists can be purchased online at www.gardencenterservices.org by clicking on “our businesses.”

You will also see links there to the Garden Center printing shop, which offers posters, greeting cards, brochures and newsletters produced by the clients at Garden Center Services. There’s also coffee available for purchase as a fundraiser for the agency.

While the center continues to strive to find jobs for its clients, the economic downturn has made that harder to do, as businesses that employed the developmentally disabled in the past have reduced their work force to save money.

So the homegrown businesses are a way to both raise funds for Garden Center Services and create fulfilling jobs for its clients.

SouthtownStar readers and others contributed $52,000 to the campaign to help Garden Center Services purchase replacement equipment and new supplies for its Mount Greenwood center. Beagles, his staff and clients thanked me profusely for that help.

That was embarrassing because all I did was write a column about the organization’s troubles. I knew the story would touch people.

Garden Center Services was launched in 1956 in an effort to support children with developmental disabilities and their families.

Its first home was a space above a garage at Reavis High School. In addition to the training programs it offers, it operates everything from single-family residential homes to 16-bedroom facilities for those who cannot care for themselves.

Beagles told me that he has contacted Chicago Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who has pledged his support to the agency, and various business and civic groups in Mount Greenwood.

“We’ve been made to feel welcome in our new community, and I’m looking forward to generating a new base of support for our efforts,” Beagles said.

I shared with Beagles a story about my childhood buddy named Bob.

Bob had cerebral palsy, and we were friends in grade school. But by the time we got to high school, I didn’t associate with Bob much.

However, I would often see him in the hallways being tormented by teenagers who thought it was fun to knock the books out of his hands and watch Bob cry out in anguish.

I never had the guts to intervene. I just pretended I didn’t see what was going on and walked passed my old buddy.

I wish I had done more. But you can’t go back in time.

However, I vowed to never again look the other way as the weak are bullied, taken advantage of or ignored by those who are stronger. It doesn’t take a lot to help.

You can volunteer at a service center for the disabled or simply let those who support such programs know that you stand with them in a time of need.

Garden Center Services can be reached at (708) 636-0054 or at its main headquarters, 8333 S. Austin Ave., Burbank. You can register there for the agency’s annual 5K Super Sunny Run/Walk/Roll fundraising event on June 8.

Or you can stop in at the art gallery in Tinley Park on the first Friday of any month (June 7 is the next date) and enjoy the artwork for free.

My thanks to readers for supporting this cause and making the opening of the new Garden Center Services office a happy one.



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