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The Naperville area is a place where there is economic, educational, psychological, physical and moral support offered to those enduring everything from economic hardships to disabilities, drug addiction to domestic abuse and more.

Name a burden one might encounter during their lifetime and odds are that there is an agency in Naperville or a neighboring community that can help or at least offer a referral for assistance.

The range of social services offered by local agencies is truly awe-inspiring because hard-working, well-intentioned staff members and volunteers work tirelessly on a daily basis to improve the quality of life of those around them.

Among those agencies are Loaves and Fishes Community Service/Naperville CARES, Western DuPage Special Recreation Association and Gigi’s Playhouse Down syndrome Achievement Center.

Loaves & Fishes Community Service/Naperville CARES

Last summer two of Naperville’s best-known agencies for under-resourced people merged in order to better serve their population. Loaves & Fishes was a food market founded by St. Raphael’s Church in 1984 while Naperville CARES was an organization founded in 1998 to prevent homelessness.

“We all know someone who has undergone a life-changing event that has made them unable to pay their rent, utilities, child care and car insurance, for instance. Many get help from their families, but we help those who can’t receive help of that kind,” said Janet Derrick, Vice President, Loaves & Fishes CARES Programs of the combined organization.

Loaves & Fishes has long been known as a food pantry organization that offers fresh, nutritional choices. In fact, 60 percent of their produce is recovered from grocers and farm stands. The Loaves & Fishes market is set up like a grocery store, complete with shopping carts, where qualified families may shop twice a month. The market is totally manned by volunteers and last year served 4,700 families from throughout DuPage County.

Naperville CARES, on the other hand, offered emergency financial assistance to 471 Naperville families and individuals as well as members of Naperville religious congregations who filled out an application. In addition, they regularly connected people in crisis with Loaves & Fishes, government heating bill assistance programs and other funding in order to help them deal with their economic crisis.

Naperville CARES also has a donated vehicle program. They refurbish donated cars and give them to individuals to drive so that they can stay employed (and pay their rent to prevent homelessness). Recipients must, however, pay to transfer the title and demonstrate that they have the first six months of insurance secured. Last year they provided 45 cars to DuPage County residents.

The two agencies had regularly referred clients back and forth and even shared space for seven years.

In February 2015 these two long-time partners started to discuss ways they could grow their partnership to provide enhanced services to the community.

“Some great synergies became apparent so we started to discuss the possibilities,” Derrick said. “We kept ourselves focused on this being the right thing to do for our clients and a way to serve the community better without duplication of services so we were able to hammer out the agreement in just eight weeks. It has been a great integration.”

She added that the two agencies’ philosophies and ways of doing business remain the same. “We treat all stories with dignity and respect and keep everything confidential. People don’t want to ask for help, so everything is kept very private.”

Western DuPage Special Recreation Association

Special Recreation Associations in the state of Illinois were created by forward-thinking Illinois legislators like then-Senator Harris Fawell 40 years ago in order to meet the recreational and social needs of our special needs citizens. These residents were receiving educational services, but more was obviously needed to allow them to the live the fullest lives possible.

In 1976, soon after the legislation made them possible, the Naperville Park District joined with three other area park districts to found the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA).

Today the WDSRA covers nine communities and annually serves over 4,500 participants of all ages through 1,500 programs, said Kim Spayer, Development Manager for WDSRA. They offer their own programming like art classes, sports teams, dances, day and overnight trips and more but they also help clients integrate into teams and activities offered by their home park districts. These “inclusion services” are offered at no cost to the residents.

“If someone wants to join a local team in their home community, for instance, they can register and then mention in the registration that they need WDSRA services. We will then call them and find out the individual’s disabilities, abilities and goals and will then work with the individual park district to make the necessary modifications so that individual can experience the program at their highest level of ability,” she said.

Others choose to enroll in WDSRA programs that largely mirror the home park district programs because they feel more comfortable in programs geared to those with special needs. They develop their own social networks and thrive there, Spayer noted.

WDSRA also offers an adult day program called “Rec & Roll” from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, in five different locations around the area. Once they leave school at the age of 21, many participants succeed better in a structured program that includes skill development, service projects and field trips.

“Our goal is to have them make connections in the community where they live, play and grow and to have them actively engaged in that community,” Spayer said.

She emphasized that WDSRA cannot survive without the financial and volunteer support of local businesses, organizations and individuals.

“The support we receive helps provide exceptional programming to families all over DuPage County,” she added.

GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley

GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley is a Down syndrome Achievement Center, located in Aurora. It was the second such center created after Nancy Gianni established the first one in Hoffman Estates 13 years ago, shortly after her daughter, GiGi, was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.

Today there are 31 GiGi’s Playhouses across the United States and one in Mexico, according to Julie Smith, site coordinator of the Fox Valley Playhouse.

“We celebrate the individual and offer support to families and to children, teens and adults who have a Down syndrome diagnosis. There is no charge for our many services because we raise our own money,” Smith said.

“We like to say we are changing the world one family, one diagnosis, one community at a time. Our aim is to increase positive awareness of individuals with Down syndrome and to see them accepted and embraced by the world,” she added.

Each GiGi’s Playhouse offers educational therapeutic programs, tutoring in math and literacy, social interaction for various age groups, support for families and workforce preparation (GiGi’s U) for older clients who are about to leave the educational system. Some also feature “Hugs and Mugs,” a coffee, tea and gelato bar where mugs, enhanced by client artwork, are made and sold and GiGi’s clients are able to practice their job skills.

“All of our programs have a purpose. For instance, we offer a teen and adult program that teaches life skills and our monthly Family Fun Night allows families to bring along siblings, cousins and friends so that they become comfortable here and comfortable with people who have a Down syndrome diagnosis,” Smith said.

“As a mom, GiGi’s Playhouse Fox Valley helped me gain the insight and courage to stand up for my daughter and gave me lots of connections and support. It also allowed me to watch the older children and see what they were able to do and that gave me hope for my daughter,” she said.

“No other generation of Down syndrome children has ever been given the opportunities and schooling that this generation is being given. It is exciting seeing that children with a Down syndrome diagnosis can learn, have a life, have feelings. The opportunity they are being given is fantastic,” Smith said. “And this is a happy place.”

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