By Karen Berkowitz – October 14, 2019
As Illinois’ oldest special recreation association prepares to turn 50 next year, the agency is celebrating a milestone of a different sort.
The Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association (NSSRA) has closed on its $3.65 million purchase of a former Highland Park synagogue, concluding its six-year search for a suitable home.
NSSRA will now focus on renovating and adapting the synagogue building to meet the needs of the children, teens, adults and families the agency serves.
The cooperative provides recreation opportunities to about 1,800 disabled children, teens and adults from 13 member North Shore communities.
The synagogue that was formerly home to the Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism was put up for sale last year after Lakeside and Congregation Solel voted to merge at the Solel site on Clavey Road in Highland Park. The new congregation is known as Makom Solel Lakeside.
The 10 park districts and three municipalities that make up NSSRA contributed slightly more than one-half of the costs of acquiring the facility, located on 5.5 acres. The balance came from a Northbrook family and the NSSRA Foundation. The cooperative will be asking member agencies to share about $3 million of the cost of renovating the facility, tentatively pegged at about $5 million. The foundation has launched “A Place to Belong,” a $2 million fundraising campaign to plug the gap.
“The building was previously a synagogue, and we are basically a park district for people with disabilities,” said Executive Director Craig Culp. “So what type of transition do we need to put into the building to make it usable for our purposes and get us in there? We are now going through the process of evaluating the renovation project.”
The NSSRA board has hired The A T Group to manage the design and construction process, which will be carried out by Woodhouse Tinucci Architects and W. B. Olson construction.
NSSRA’s member suburbs include the lakefront communities of Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Lake Forest and Lake Bluff and the neighboring communities of Northfield, Glenview, Northbrook, Deerfield, Highwood and Riverwoods.
Costs are divided among the participating governments under a formula that considers both population and the value of taxable property within each jurisdiction. The five largest members — the park districts serving Glenview, Northbrook, Highland Park and Wilmette, along with the City of Lake Forest — collectively account for about 72 percent of NSSRA’s funding.
Executive Director Craig Culp said the organization’s current location in a Northbrook industrial park offers no opportunity to provide onsite programming. He said the additional space will allow the cooperative to add programs without waiting to reserve space at a facility in one of its member communities where demand already exceeds availability.
“We are going from zero square feet of programming space to approximately 16,000 square feet of programming space,” said Culp.
The synagogue’s great room is an ideal space for adult day care, he noted. Five multipurpose rooms will serve a variety of functions and will allow for a dedicated art space where participants can continue working on projects without the need to pack up supplies and projects after each session. An enclosed outdoor patio might enable staff to move a yoga class outside on a nice day.
For now, NSSRA has no plans to use the former sanctuary for programming and is leaving any changes to that space for a future phase of the renovation.
Supporters see great potential for the synagogue’s commercial kitchen, which can be adapted for cooking classes and even perhaps a fun takeoff on “Chopped,” the Food Network show in which contestants prepare meals from ingredients they’re provided.
Culp said NSSRA would keep it as a commercial kitchen, but add some paint and the type of stoves used for home meal preparation. While the recreation cooperative would not take on vocational training, if a participant learns skills useful in the workplace, so much the better, he said.
He said the association will continue to use facilities within its participating communities for most programs. For instance, NSSRA currently runs a fitness program at a Wilmette fitness center. The association’s tennis and golf teams play at the Nielsen Tennis Center in Winnetka and the Wilmette Golf Club, respectively. The association’s afterschool programs are held at the Takiff Center in Glencoe and Saturday afternoon programs for teens and youth are based in Lake Forest.
“We do not want a building that just has people with disabilities in it exclusively, all of the time,” Culp said. “We don’t want to segregate. We want to stay inclusive.”
As NSSRA’s largest government partner, the Glenview Park District accounts for 20 percent of NSSRA’s member agency contributions.
Michael McCarty, executive director of the Glenview Park District, said he’s “absolutely thrilled” that NSSRA was able to purchase a facility that will give families a sense of belonging.
“The biggest benefit is for our participants — the kids, families and adults that are in NSSRA programs,” McCarty said. “This gives us an actual place that is accessible and usable and that all can enjoy. We are no longer going to be in an industrial park.”
McCarty noted the funds to acquire and renovate the building are coming from private sources as well as the member agencies, and NSSRA could not have accomplished the goal without private donors.
“Illinois is so blessed with having the ability to have special recreation districts,” McCarty said. “I think it is one of the things that sets Illinois and our communities apart from anywhere else in the country. These special recreation districts do not exist anywhere else and the services they provide are second to none.“
In Illinois, park districts and municipalities can levy a tax, up to four cents per $100 of equalized assessed valuation, to pay for special recreation programs and to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Wendy Rosen’s son Jack, who will turn 22 next month, has been participating in NSSRA’s offerings since he was 5. His activities have included horseback riding, ice skating, swimming, art, basketball and theater.
Rosen said that growing up in Highland Park, her parents enrolled her in park district ice skating, gymnastics, art classes and tennis lessons.
“That was part of the ritual of growing up, trying out all these things to see what fits and what I would like,” said Rosen, who now lives in Northbrook.
For the Rosen family, it was only natural that NSSRA would provide those experiences for Jack, who is on the autism spectrum. His current schedule includes strength and conditioning training on Monday, gym night on Tuesday, horseback riding on Thursday and a “Friday Night Out” social group. On Saturday, he starts the day with bowling at 8:30 a.m. and packs in many other activities by mid-afternoon.
“It has never been anything but that for our family,” said Rosen. She and her husband, Michael, are co-chairing the NSSRA Foundation’s capital campaign to raise $2 million toward the renovation.
Rosen has come to realize how fortunate her family is when speaking with people from outside the area or the state. “This building will be there for generations of challenged and disabled individuals to have a place of their own,” Rosen said.
She added that for special needs families, there is comfort in knowing that NSSRA will be there as a resource for other family members when parents are gone.
“This is going to be a place that siblings and other relatives know will be there, not only as a place of respite,” Rosen said, “but also to provide recreational activities for the participants.”