Step into the lobby of the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center along Bellemeade Avenue at any given time and you’re sure to be greeted by a welcoming face. But find your way there after 3 p.m., and the front lobby is bustling with parents talking like old friends and children laughing as they play.
Though the center treats both adults and children throughout the day, it is after school hours when the halls of Easterseals seem to come alive.
“The kids are running around, the parents are talking, the therapists are giving updates on sessions,” says Lisa Fisher, a speech pathologist and vice president of clinical services at Easterseals. “It’s very interactive, very up beat and positive.”
For both clients and professionals, Easterseals is a place of hope.
“They really look at the person as a whole; it’s not just about therapy,” says Jara Dillingham, whose daughter Miah is the 2017 Easterseals child ambassador. “They look at the person as a whole and say, ‘What can we do to maximize their potential?’”
Capital campaigns and fundraising may see more limelight, but Easterseals’ core values revolve around those seeking services. Staff members who come to Easterseals settle and make life-careers in the organization. Those in need of the organization’s services continue to thrive through the guidance of therapists. Walking through the hallways, clients and staff act more like friends and family.
“This is a great place to work,” says Fisher. “The environment, in general, is very positive and open. It helps you love what you do.”
No matter how people come to Easterseals, it sticks with them. After 70 years, it continues to be an organization that is a light to those in need and those who want to help.
The Easterseals Rehabilitation Center saw its start in Evansville in 1946 under the name Vanderburgh County Society for Crippled Children and Adults. This group began funding braces, crutches, wheelchairs, and surgeries for those in need. Services would expand to speech and physical therapy in 1951 when the society moved into the former Christ the King church building.
Easterseals would build its own rehabilitation center in 1957 — the cornerstone laid was inscribed with a phrase reflecting a cornerstone of the organization: “For Building Better Lives.”
Services expanded to include counseling, audiological needs, preschool services, and an early infant intervention program in the ‘60s. The addition of the early infant program called for an expansion of the building as well, completed in 1972.
Through the last seven decades, Easterseals has continued on an upward trek of growth — the first telethon and a name change to Southwestern Indiana Easterseal Society were introduced in the ‘70s; occupational therapy, semi-independent living programs, and group homes for children and adults in the ‘80s; and in the ‘90s a therapeutic pool, Indiana’s First Steps early intervention program, therapeutic preschool in partnership with Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, assistive technology services, and inclusive early care and education at Easterseals Milestones.
In the new millennium, the pace has yet to slow.
“They have a system that works here,” says Andy Imlay, Easterseals’ 2017 adult ambassador. “They know it works. Easterseals gives people with disabilities the building blocks they need to be on a level playing field with able body people.”
When Andy Imlay arrives at the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center for his sessions, he says he hardly has to give his name at check-in. The 37-year-old Evansville resident is recognized by nearly everyone.
As the 2017 adult ambassador for the organization, this isn’t Imlay’s first foray into the job — in 1988, he was the child ambassador. Originally from Spencer County and born with cerebral palsy, Imlay says he doesn’t remember a time when Easterseals was not a part of his life.
“I feel they gave me the tools I needed to be successful, and it was up to me to use those,” he says.
During grade and high school, Imlay was a full-time therapy client at Easterseals. Upon graduation, he went off to college at Vincennes University. Due to the changes his muscles and joints experience with cerebral palsy, Imlay — who has a career in the computer field and also performs as an amateur comedian — has come back to the rehabilitation center for guidance on exercising and new ways to achieve his daily goals.
“I’m here to work hard and make sure I’m still able to do the things I want to do,” he says. “Just because my body is starting to disagree with me right now doesn’t mean I can’t fight back. I’ve never been one of those people who just sits back and takes something.”
This year, Imlay hopes his time as an ambassador not only raises awareness for Easterseals, but for cerebral palsy as well.
“There’s not a lot known about cerebral palsy,” he says. “It’s the most common childhood disability out there. But there’s not a lot in mainstream media about it.”
As for his duties as an ambassador, the E’ville Iron Street Rod Clubs Frog Follies car-judging contest was his favorite as a kid and one he’s excited about this time around as well.
Six-year-old Miah Dillingham doesn’t meet a stranger. With a smile that lights up a room, she bounds about with energy and has a drive to try new things.
“She has a nothing-slows-me-down attitude, and I absolutely love that,” says Miah’s mother Jara. “If there is something she wants to do, she’s going to figure out a way to do it.”
Miah came into the Dillingham family at the age of 2 — she was born in China with a neuro-muscular condition, hip dysplasia, and clubfeet. Jara says when she and her husband JT first brought Miah home to Newburgh, Indiana, the little girl couldn’t walk. However, the Dillinghams worked with doctors and the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center to get Miah on a path of improvement. Over the years, the John H. Castle Elementary student has benefited from Easterseals’ First Steps and outpatient therapy programs.
“I know that throughout Miah’s life, there are going to be times she’s going to need Easterseals more than others,” says Jara. “One thing I love about Easterseals is that it is not just Miah getting physical therapy. I get an opportunity to talk with experts to help us prepare for the future as well.”
As Miah’s time with Easterseals continues, the Dillinghams see their daughter continue to develop skills to help her be as independent as any other 6-year-old girl.
“Resilience is a word that always comes to mind when I think of Miah,” says Jara. “She is just so resilient through all the obstacles.”
Changing of the Guard
Kelly Schneider is what many at Easterseals call a “lifer.” A graduate of Kentucky Wesleyan College, Owensboro, Kentucky, and University of Southern Indiana with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health administration (respectively), the Henderson, Kentucky, native has made her career at the rehabilitation center.
“I started here as a group home manager working in a home for young children who had significant disabilities,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of opportunities here.”
Those opportunities culminated into being named president and chief executive officer of Easterseals in 2015, following in the footsteps of Ray Raisor after his 34 years of leading the organization.
“When I took over after Ray retired, four other vice presidents retired in the following eight months. So my role in the beginning was to build a leadership team,” says Schneider, who has been with Easterseals for 29 years. “We promoted from within and also brought in some phenomenal people; the team that’s in place now is just fantastic.”
With a settled leadership team, Schneider’s eyes now are turned toward the future of Easterseals.
“Last year we celebrated our 70th anniversary, and our goal is to do things to make sure we’re here for another 70 years,” she says. “We want to be around for a long time to serve the needs of the community.”
“I think we’re in a good place with Kelly in leadership,” says Fisher. “There’s nobody who knows everything about everything like Kelly does.”
Looking forward, Schneider hopes to focus on three areas: involvement at the state government level with legislative issues; increased community engagement by the leadership team and the center as a whole; and continued expansion on Easterseals core values.
“Excellence, stewardship, respect, commitment, and teamwork — those are the values that are very evident across our organization,” she says. “We want to continue to strengthen them and build on those things.”
Under her leadership, Easterseals already is well on its way.
One of the few complaints that has been said about the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center over the years is about its facility on Bellemeade Avenue. Completed in 1957, the building has seen a handful of renovation and expansion projects over the decades. But still, the building seemed not to reflect the services provided within its walls.
“We try very hard to not spend money on things we don’t see as absolutely necessary,” says Schneider. “But our Ensure the Future capital campaign was an opportunity for us to look at the space and say, ‘Okay, we provide extraordinary high-quality services; this physical space should reflect that.’”
The strategy worked. Renovated spaces included therapy areas, aquatics, the Dan and Nancy Mitchell Therapeutic Preschool, and other program spaces. The front lobby and waiting area was expanded and completely remodeled — now known as the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Lobby, it offers a bright welcome to those visiting Easterseals.
“We love to show this place off,” says Schneider. “We are so thankful for all of our capital campaign supporters, especially the lead gift to our campaign from the Sol and Arlene Bronstein Foundation.”
For most of her career, Fisher has visited area children to assess them for the First Steps program (which provides therapy services to children ages birth to 3 years old in their homes).
“It was one of the things I didn’t want to give up when I was moving into administration,” she says. “When you’ve done something so many times, you get to the point where you feel comfortable with it.”
Another aspect that makes the assessments worth it for Fisher is her First Steps partner.
“The physical therapist I’ve been doing these with is Tammy Lockyear. We have been testing kids together for 26 years,” she says with a laugh. “She’s one of my best friends, and we started at Easterseals three months apart.”
Stories like this are common among the therapists and staff at the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center. Schneider says the running joke is if you haven’t worked at the organization for more than 10 years, you’re still new.
“There are a lot of staff members who have been here for 25 years or more. What really makes us unique, I think, is the commitment of that staff on all levels of the organization,” she says. “It really, truly is just a great place to be.”
“The people here all believe in the mission,” adds Fisher. “They are in the helping profession for a reason. Easterseals is a great place because people are doing what they love to do for the reasons they love to do it.”
The feeling of family extends from the professionals to the clients as well. Schneider and Fisher both agree getting to know the clients and their families is a rewarding part of what Easterseals does.
Fisher recalls recently hearing an older couple walking down the hall and running into one of the longtime center therapists. Though it had been 30 years since the couple had been to Easterseals for services, the therapist still remembered them, says Fisher.
“They were reminiscing and the therapist was showing them the renovations,” she adds. “When I see those kinds of things, it makes me glad to be a part of all of it.”
As spring arrives in the Tri-State, the staff of the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center transforms the brightly colored children’s therapy gym into a TV studio as volunteers, clients, therapists, and more gather for the annual Easterseals Telethon.
In its 40th year, this event is the biggest fundraiser the nonprofit organization holds each year. For six hours, the telethon is shown on WEHT Local and features area children and adults with disabilities who have been a part of the Easterseals family. Outside the facility, a cruise-in complete with street rods, classic cars, and street machines is set up, thanks to the E’ville Iron Street Rod Club.
While the event is important for the fund raising it does — according to President Kelly Schneider, the money raised helps the center underwrite thousands of therapy sessions for clients — it also provides those involved with Easterseals a chance to celebrate.
“It’s a very energizing day,” says Schneider. “It’s a great way for us to say thank you to the many, many, many people who do support us. It’s a really fun day.”
Though this year’s telethon was held Sunday, April 9, the opportunity to help and donate or even tour the facility still is available. Schneider and others encourage the community always to reach out about fundraising and volunteering opportunities or schedule a tour.
“It’s never too late to make a donation,” says Schneider.
For more information on the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center, call 812-479-1411 or visit eastersealsrehabcenter.com.