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Easterseals is not only still around — it’s big, important and based in Chicago

Easterseals has 34,000 employees in 5,000 locations worldwide, making it the largest non-profit health care organization in the United States.

Patrick Rees, 23, was a student at Easterseals Academy on West 13th Street and now works there at Harry's Buttons, the school's shop manufacturing t-shirts and buttons. "I loved it," he said, of his experience at school. "It helped me grow." | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

How are a rectangle and a square similar? How are they different? What about a chair and a table? How are they the same? How are they different? What about a truck and a bus? A pencil and a pen? A tomato and an apple?

Not the easiest questions, particularly if you are 12 years old and have functional difficulties, such as Mikkel Brill, who parsed these distinctions on Monday, leaning forward in concentration, legs churning with effort, guided by teacher Libby Mengel in room 140 of Easterseals Academy, formerly the Easter Seals Therapeutic Day School, on Chicago’s Near West Side.

The windows behind them are high, designed to admit natural light but not offer views that might compete for the attention of easily-distracted students. The $24 million building opened in 2008 and has a number of other special features, such as extra insulation.

“Kids with autism get easily stimulated by outside sound,” said interim principal Kelly Sansone.

The academy serves 110 students from age 3 to 22 — the day before their 22nd birthday, actually, when public funding cuts out. Students are referred here from public schools; they cannot apply directly.

“We had an adult program that closed last January, due to the state funding crisis,” said Sansone.

Easterseals is one of those important organizations flying under the radar of the public, though it really shouldn’t, particularly in Chicago, because its headquarters is here — on the 14th floor of the Board of Trade Building. Easterseals celebrated its centennial last month and it is huge: 34,000 employees in 5,000 locations worldwide, the largest non-profit health care organization in the United States. It serves 1.5 million people, focusing on veterans and children with cognitive problems, such as autism.

“We have a lower profile, but it’s steady, said Angela F. Williams, an Air Force vet and judge advocate general lawyer who last year became Easterseals’ president and CEO. “Easterseals is that hidden diamond, and everybody needs to know who we are and what we’re doing. We’re the leading service provider for children with autism.”

Easterseals began in 1919 as the National Society for Crippled Children, started by an Ohio businessman who was shocked at the lack of medical care for children after his son was killed in a streetcar accident.

The mandate grew in World War II to include veterans and their families.

“We continued to expand to meet needs,” said Williams.

The name “Easter Seals” came from a successful campaign in 1934 to raise awareness and money by selling adhesive stamps at Easter. The group officially changed its name to “Easter Seals” in 1967 and mashed that into “Easterseals” in 2016. The seals are still an important fundraising tool, sent to almost 20 million households a year, raising $13 million.

The halls of the academy often find several students who have become over-boisterous walking hand-in-hand with an aide. “Calm body, quiet hands,” urged one. Some wear boxing head guards and padded mittens to keep them from hurting themselves.

In addition to classrooms, the Easterseals Academy, 1939 W. 13th St., operates a business, Harry’s Buttons, that sells custom-made pin-back badges and t-shirts, including one design that shows the Chicago flag, with the stars replaced by the puzzle piece that is a symbol of autism, an enigmatic and baffling condition.

“It’s fun,” said Patrick Rees, 23, producing buttons to be given to those attending their first White Sox game at Guaranteed Rate Field. Rees, who lives in Evanston, was also a student at the school.

“I loved it,” he said. “It helped me grow.”

Mikkel Brill, 12, answers questions in a drill designed to improve his speech and conversational abilities with teacher Libby Mengel (right) at the Easterseals Academy, 1939 W. 13th St. The Chicago-based organization is a leading provider of services for
Mikkel Brill, 12, answers questions in a drill designed to improve his speech and conversational abilities with teacher Libby Mengel (right) at the Easterseals Academy, 1939 W. 13th St. The Chicago-based organization is a leading provider of services for children with autism and other cognitive issues. In this room, the windows are mounted higher to limit outside distractions. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Mengel, in her fourth year working at the academy, also enjoys being here.

“I like having the opportunities to help students with their communication,” she said.

Mikkel grasped the chair and table similarities right away.

“Because they have four legs,” he observed

“There you go!” replied Mengel. “Nice job.”

The rectangle and the square were a bit harder, and required prompting.

“How many sides does a square have?” Mengel asked. “And how many sides does a rectangle have?”

“One, two, three, four” he counted.

“They’re the same because they have four sides,” she summarized, and different because the rectangle has two sides that are longer than the other two.

As for a chair and a table, Mengel guided, “do you sit on a table?

“Noooooo!” Mikkel exuded.

“So that’s how they’re different,” she said. “Good job. You’re doing great.”

Mikkel let out a happy whirring noise.