Disability Advocates looks ahead to new $2.5M HQ

Kent County nonprofit kicks off $750K public phase of fund drive to move to Special Olympics campus.
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The new Home Accessibility Center is designed to help users learn ways they can be safer or more independent in their homes. Courtesy Disability Advocates of Kent County

Disability Advocates of Kent County has raised more than $1.75 million to build its new headquarters and accessibility showroom at the Special Olympics campus in Byron Township and is asking the community to chip in another $750,000.

The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that works alongside people with disabilities is currently based at 3600 Camelot Drive SE and is planning to move its headquarters to the new Special Olympics Michigan Unified Sports & Inclusion Center at 160 68th St. SW in Byron Township in April 2022.

Disability Advocates’ new, 8,600-square-foot space technically will be smaller than the 10,000 square feet it currently occupies at Camelot Drive, but according to Executive Director David Bulkowski, the current HQ spans four separate suites linked by a hallway, lacks storage space for medical equipment and a place to demonstrate and sterilize it, and is in an off-the-beaten-path residential neighborhood — which makes the location less than ideal for seeing clients and maintaining and developing partnerships.

Special Olympics Michigan purchased the former South Christian High School in Byron Township in 2019 and is amid a $20 million construction project to transform it into the organization’s largest Special Olympics facility in the world. Besides Disability Advocates, the other organizations that will lease space at the campus include Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Café, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Far Out Volleyball Club, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan/be nice, MOKA and Thresholds.

Bulkowski said being part of the new campus will increase his organization’s internal and external collaboration and its community visibility, while at the same time allowing it to build the area’s first Occupational Therapy Home Accessibility Center, which will be an 800-square-foot dedicated area separate from the offices, meeting rooms and other features of the HQ. 

“The Home Accessibility Center (will be) built for people to come in and check things out and learn about ways that they can be safer in their home or more independent in their home,” Bulkowski said.

The center will serve as a “test space” showroom where people with disabilities, their families, health care professionals, and design and building contractors can explore options for a safer home, including models and adaptive equipment — something that is not currently offered anywhere else in the region.

“The Home Accessibility Center is a response to a demonstrated need,” said Peggy Helsel, development director for Disability Advocates. “Often, people ask, ‘What does that mean?’ when we talk about universal design and the home. We are giving people a real-life model home to experience what a universally accessible space can look like.”

The center will include features such as a bathroom with a 5-foot-by-5-foot universal design-accessible shower, but also a bathroom next to it that is inaccessible, which will allow Disability Advocates’ staff to demonstrate to clients how to use adaptive equipment in their homes without retrofitting their bathrooms to universal design, Bulkowski said.

The showroom also will contain moveable walls so that architects, builders and developers can see the difference in accessibility between various widths of rooms, so they can keep it in mind as they design and construct future commercial and residential buildings. 

Bulkowski added Disability Advocates also will use the space to host occupational therapy students from local colleges and universities as they go through their training.

He said being located steps away from other organizations that serve the disabled community will have built-in benefits, including being able to send clients to cooking classes and independent living coaching or to have the other organizations send their clients to Disability Advocates to get help with their government benefits.

Disability Advocates also will have access to shared spaces at the campus such as community rooms and an auditorium.

Launched earlier this year, Disability Advocates’ Building Opportunities, Creating Independence capital campaign has raised more than $1.75 million over the past several months, thanks to lead gifts from contributors such as Dr. Kimberly Y. Barrington, the Kate and Richard Wolters Foundation, Meijer Foundation, Mike and Sue Jandernoa Foundation, Wege Foundation, John and Nancy Kennedy Family Foundation and Frey Foundation.

The public campaign, announced Sept. 14, aims to raise another $750,000 to help cover construction and campaign costs, new programming and the organization’s Home Accessibility Center.

Disability Advocates has allocated 40% of its construction budget to hire local minority-owned contractors, which so far include DHE Plumbing, Monte Christo Electric and Grand Rapids Fire Suppression. Wolverine Building Group is serving as the general contractor, and Mathison | Mathison Architects is the architect.

“Wolverine Building Group is honored to lead the build out of Disability Advocates of Kent County’s new headquarters and occupational therapy showroom,” said Curt Mulder, president, Wolverine Building Group. “For 40 years, the staff and volunteers have worked tirelessly to serve people living with disabilities. They all deserve a world-class space, so we are eager to showcase our craft and provide them with a new environment that they can be proud of.”

At the public announcement of the fund drive, co-chairs Cameron Young, digital marketing specialist at Behler-Young, and Angela Nelson, vice president of multicultural business development at Experience Grand Rapids, invited the public to join in the fundraising effort, which will continue through the end of the year.

“The invitation to join the Special Olympics at this new campus was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Young said. “As we work to help those with disabilities, I am pleased to be part of an effort that truly gives local residents a strong support network in a space where we can continue to build partnerships with like-minded organizations.”

Nelson added: “Demand for our programs is increasing, and we know we can serve more people in this new space as West Michigan grows.”

Bulkowski emphasized his gratitude for the local and regional foundations, area businesses and community donors.

“We have been so fortunate to receive gifts to this important campaign,” he said. “Our campaign cabinet joins me in thanking the community for their meaningful gifts. We now invite the broader community to help us complete this campaign effort.”

Those interested can donate to the campaign at dakc.us/donate.

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