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Non-profit corridor takes shape

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It may be several years before CareLink and Lions World Services for the Blind, two locally based non-profits, are ready open their new doors to the public, but efforts to bring their respective headquarters to the burgeoning non-profit corridor east of Interstate 30 are in full swing.

“Our number one issue and problem right now is space,” said LWSB’s longtime CEO, Ramona Sangalli. Lions World Services now operates from its 1960s building on Fair Park Boulevard.

Now in its 60th year, Lions World Services has worked from that modest space to help thousands of vision-impaired people from around the world live successful lives. Work-training programs, household management classes, specialized education, and one-on-one counseling are but a few examples of crucial programs that have, Sangalli said, become limited by outdated resources and facilities.

Just recently, Sangalli said, a letter crossed her desk from a young, sight-impaired student — in Braille — imploring Sangalli to admit him into the program, as he was not from the United States and had little access to such services in his own country. It was with much regret, she said, that LWSB was unable to accommodate him. Why were they forced to deny his request? They simply did not have the room for him, she said.

“We always want to serve more people … people are even on a waiting list to get in,” Sangalli said. “Clearly, the demand is there.”

With luck, the organization will be able to meet more of it soon. While a few land deals are pending, LWSB is making plans to settle into its new home on Sixth Street between Collins and College streets. It has taken nearly two years to secure the property, at a cost between $3 million and $4 million. The city has made mention of widening College Street, which might affect property negotiations, she said, but that should be decided in the near future.

“Our new complex will be on the highest elevation in the corridor,” she said. “It’ll be great visibility from the freeway … and I think will really improve public awareness.”

Construction on the 167,000-square-foot campus is slated to begin in 2008, with each of the three phases taking between one and two years to complete. The new headquarters will house more dormitories, classrooms, and office space, and include a 300-seat auditorium, higher security and outdoor activity space. “It takes a lot of planning for the new building because there are architectural features for the sight-impaired that are incorporated into construction,” Sangalli said.

A feature that Sangalli hopes the new LWSB campus will include is a visual impairment simulator — a windowless room where only hearing, smell and touch can be used for navigation. She saw such a facility on a trip to Finland several years ago. She envisions the room on the south side of the main building’s ground floor, which will be built into the hillside.

“I believe that this will help to magnify the understanding of what they [the visually impaired] go through every day,” she said.

The most immediate priorities for the organization are fund raising and increasing public awareness.

“It’s true that we’re not very well known in our own backyard,” she said. “We need to establish our identity in Little Rock again.”

The entire project, including the property purchases, should cost about $25 million. Ground will not be broken until all of the funding is secured, Sangalli said. A separate entity, World Services for the Blind Foundation, has recently been formed to focus strictly on fund raising.

Elaine Eubank, president and CEO of CareLink, faces a similar timetable as she and her staff begin the initial planning for their move to a tract of land directly across from Heifer International on World Avenue. CareLink, which provides services for the elderly, including daycare, caregiver support, meals-on-wheels programs and more, is now located on North Little Rock’s Riverfront Drive and has centers in five neighboring counties.

“This really is a magical part of town right now,” Eubank said. CareLink hopes “to be a model for the rest of the nation.”

CareLink purchased the property at Shall Street and World Avenue, where a warehouse now sits, in 2004 for approximately $2 million, provided by one anonymous donor. CareLink should be ready to announce the details of a capital campaign in the next few years. While the details of the structure are still in development, it should be around 55,000 square feet.

“It will be a multipurpose building, so it requires a lot of research and planning,” Eubank said. “The main point is to move everything to one site.”

CareLink currently operates out of 10 borrowed spaces in addition to their own buildings. As with LWSB, the eventual move to a larger base of operations in the non-profit corridor will enable the organization to offer more services to the elderly, increase its staff, and propose more volunteer opportunities. Eubank predicts that they will be able to serve nearly 10,000 more people than they can now.

A larger headquarters and more modern facility, Eubank said, will allow CareLink to collaborate with organizations such as Alzheimer’s Arkansas, LifeQuest of Arkansas and the Reynolds Institute on Aging at UAMS.

Plans for the new campus include an updated day service program for adults, a fully equipped fitness center, several meeting rooms and classrooms, and, in general, more activity space. CareLink employs about 650 people now, but once the new center is built, it will add about 100 more.

“People have so many different interests, and with the new center, we intend to serve them all,” Eubank said. “The fitness and wellness center really is one of the most important parts of the whole project … exercise is the true fountain of youth, and so many of today’s older population don’t exercise.”

Even primary caregivers, she said, are vulnerable to illness and stress as a result of the strain of the family situation, and will also be able to take advantage of the new developments.

“What is here now is just so small,” Eubank said. “The number of 65-year-olds is in the process of doubling, and 85-plus is the fastest growing segment of the population — it’s tripling. … So we’re doing all that we can to help Arkansans age well … and this center will be very important for people to stay connected and well.”

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