By Jean Lotus
"Person-centered" is how Phil Carmody at Opportunity Knocks describes the leading principle of programs for intellectually-disabled adults offered by the River Forest-based organization.
"We want Opportunity Knocks to be guided by the interests of the individual Warriors," Carmody said. "Then we want the Warriors to be right at home in the community." Participants, including Phil's brother John, are affectionately dubbed the "Warriors" for their perseverance and strength.
The social and recreational organization has grown swiftly from its humble beginnings as recipient of the proceeds from a charity softball game in 2009. Today, the program, located in the River Forest Community Center, serves 70 participants and employs 21 people.
Opportunity Knocks, or "OK," is designed to provide structured activities and support for adults who age-out of the special education support services offered at Oak Park and River Forest High School when they turn 22 years old.
The newest project of Opportunity Knocks is the Life Shop, a twice-a-week daytime workshop that focuses on wellness and nutrition, self-autonomy and vocational skills. Ten participant Warriors are enrolled in the pilot day program.
After observing 20 other day programs in the Chicago area, program director and life coach Kim Surprenant and assistant Keely Baldwin decided one pillar of the new program needed to be eating right and getting enough exercise.
One Thursday Life Shop session began with a get-energized group dance to a YouTube video of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," screened on the electronic whiteboard donated as part of a technology grant by Options Clearing Corporation.
Part of the group then traveled to check out some fitness equipment at Gottlieb Hospital's gym.
Exercise coach and wellness coordinator Jeni Pierce is helping the Warriors choose some fitness equipment for the program, which includes 30 minutes of exercise per day.
"We take a look at accessibility. Is it easy to get on and off?" Pierce said. "There's the intimidation factor, whether people are hesitant to use it."
"And people mentioned they'd like a cup holder, which we didn't even think of," Pierce added. The group has made field trips to Loyola Hospital's fitness center, the West Cook Y and the Oak Park Tennis and Fitness Center. Trips to Formula Fitness Club and Midtown Fitness are planned.
Back for lunch after their field trip, participants get ready to eat. Three warriors take turns working as Warrior chefs, plunging into every element of meal preparation. This includes menu planning, listing ingredients, shopping for food, preparation in the on-site kitchen, serving and cleaning up.
"We make everything collaborative," Surprenant said. "It's all peer-led, so we give them a lot of choices and help them follow through."
On a recent Thursday, the meal, Mexican chicken-and-cheese tacos on whole grain wraps with apple slices and caramel, had been selected by Sonya Taylor. Sonya had requested Spanish rice, but the life coaches came up with a lower-calorie alternative: quinoa prepared with onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, low sodium chicken broth and taco seasoning.
The concept of the "No Thank You" bite has been developed by the group to get Warriors to sample unfamiliar foods, like quinoa.
"Well, I almost threw up when I tried that!" declared Max Wright, who was a good sport and took several no-thank-you bites anyway. Lunchers also included Charlie O'Connor, Kristopher Bowyer and Darius Nichols.
Warrior John Carmody helped slice apples and opened cans of diced tomatoes. Jackie Finn and Sonya helped plate and serve the food. Life Shop works with families as well to bring the menu planning and cooking skills back to be used at home.
The Life Shop is also partnering with Whole Foods to coordinate a two-week healthy-living cooking class. "It's a test drive for them and for us," said Surprenant.
Life Shop also features special activity days, planned from beginning to end by the Warriors.
Participant and train super-fan Max gave a presentation on train safety, including a video and an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. The group took a trip on the Union Pacific Northwest line on a Metra double-decker to Elmhurst and back.
Other peer-led activities have included a beading workshop, led by Warrior Claire Puiszis; an Irish dancing demonstration, planned by Sonya Taylor; a Halloween gangster bus tour, planned by Patrick O'Rourke; and a spa pampering day with watercolor painting, planned by Jackie Finn. John Carmody was setting up an event involving bowling and watching Wrestlemania clips. The menu item: Hot dogs.
"They're health-itized hot dogs," Surprenant quickly said. "Turkey dogs. We don't really do hot dogs that often."
Opportunity Knocks gets its funding mostly from private and foundation donations, said Phil Carmody, whose brother, Mike, is CFO. They receive grant funding from Oak Park and River Forest townships, with whom they just signed a three-year lease at the Community Center.
The group is taking steps to become accredited to accept state money for programming.
"We work in a nice collaboration with other local providers, such as West Suburban Special Recreation and Oak-Leyden," said Carmody. "Our program is private-pay and it's different from theirs, but we would like to be able to have participants use the benefits and resources available to them for our program — if they want to," he added.
The organization relies on "our really awesome events" for much of their operating expenses, Carmody said, as well as a tuition charge that works out to a program cost of about $9.16 per hour per participant, according to their annual report.
Coming up is the group's Night for Opportunities Gala, this Saturday, April 26, held at Galleria Marchetti in Chicago.
"We have a Roaring '20s theme this year," said Carmody. "We have almost 400 volunteers who help with the events. I think our events are really special."