Growing at the Gavras Center

The E. John Gavras Center has provided ‘person-centered services’ in Cayuga County and beyond since 1953. The organization has a long history of community advocacy in Auburn; the Gavras Center was originally founded by local parents who demanded better care for their disabled children. Today, the Gavras Center is caring for more children than ever before, as increasing numbers of families search for affordable daycare and pre kindergarten. True to its origins, Gavras is again responding to local needs - this time, by embracing a vision of services that enable all children, irrespective of ability, to fulfill their individual potential.

Gavras is embarking on a $1.5 million dollar capital expansion to grow its programs and broaden the public’s perception of its offerings. “The stereotype is that we only serve people with disabilities,” says Kenn Ward, Principal of Educational Services at Gavras. The organization believes that an expansion and rebranding will help construct a more accurate picture of Gavras' breadth of services: namely, that the organization is a frontline care provider for all children.

Gavras’ programs have also outgrown the organization’s physical space. Gavras’ pre-kindergarten and daycare programs in particular have increased dramatically with a reshuffling in local services: the Neighborhood House, a longtime daycare provider, shuttered in March of 2016, and a recent state grant opened the door to free pre-kindergarten for all three and four year olds in Auburn. The Auburn Enlarged City School District received a $3 million grant to administer free half day and full day pre-kindergarten at various recognized organizations throughout the city, including the Gavras Center. Free pre-kindergarten led to an enrollment uptick at Gavras, and the organization expects even greater increases in the months to come, as more families become aware of their preschooling options.

As programs grow, so do staffing requirements. Gavras currently employs about 150 individuals, making it a sizeable economic driver in Auburn. It plans to hire 27 additional staff as the capital expansion lifts off. Gavras’ pedagogical model requires lots of hands; typical classrooms feature one teacher, one special education teacher, and three paraprofessionals. “We always need more staff,” says Michelle Cooney, the Preschool Therapeutic Coordinator at Gavras.

The expansion will increase the number of classrooms to accommodate more students and staff. It will also renovate the building’s dated entrance. The Gavras building was constructed in the 1970s, and has a decidedly institutional feel - an aesthetic at odds with Gavras’ welcoming and inclusive programs. “We want the entrance to be more family-oriented and kid-friendly,” says Ward. “We want this to be a place where parents and kids are both excited to pull in the driveway.”

The crown jewels of the capital expansion are a new motor skills center and an updated playground. The new motor skills center will replace a sterile physical therapy room previously used solely by students with physical disabilities. In keeping with the expansion’s goal of creating a welcoming space for all, the new motor skills center will function as an indoor learning and play hub for all of Gavras’ pre-kindergarten and daycare students.

Cooney and her staff of physical and occupational therapists worked closely with the team at Beardsley Architects to design and outfit a space for children with a wide range of physical and cognitive abilities. Cooney pointed out a rock wall suitable for able-bodied children in the design plans, as well as cosy, confined cubbies with soft lighting - a refuge for children on the autism spectrum.

New equipment is also at work in the designs for the new playground. As with the motor skills center, Cooney and her team have been involved in every step of the design process: from researching manufacturers to selecting equipment. “Michelle and her staff have been instrumental in determining what’s best for our populations,” says Michael Barringer, the Gavras Center’s Chief Financial Officer. Cooney chimed in: “So many children come to us and don’t know how to play. This playground will help children play while honing their social/emotional skills - there’s a lot of equipment that requires two or more children to work properly.”

Gavras staff are enthused about the capital expansion and its promises for the organization’s future. The expansion has been a collaborative process; staff input prompted the campaign’s leaders to look beyond infrastructure, and consider how Gavras wants to operate in the community going forward. “We want to set the bar - and set a high bar- for this type of school,” says Ward. “We want this to be a place where people really want to come.”

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