Building "meant for children" increases capacity for Hammitt School

By Zach Dietmeier

A Bloomington-Normal human services agency born to aid Central Illinois children is expanding its education space and program reach.

The Baby Fold got its start in 1902 when Nancy Mason donated her home in Normal to the Methodist Deaconesses operating Deaconess Hospital – now Advocate BroMenn Medical Center. The Deaconesses saw a need to address the growing population of westbound orphan trains coming from the east coast and decided to use the home for children in need. The organization was especially concerned about the especially vulnerable – children with special needs, minorities, and sibling groups.

The facilities and programs have changed over the last century, but the overall mission “to help families and children develop the hope, courage, and love they need to become whole and healthy” remains unchanged.

I’m consistently impressed with the forward-thinking minds of our business folks – and their big hearts,” Baby Fold Vice President of Development and Public Relations Aimee Beam said.

In 1971, special education services were first offered through the Child Development Center, which later became Hammitt School. Named after former Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent Reverend William and Gwendolyn Hammitt (respectively), the school program primarily focused on elementary education until expanding the junior-senior high level in 2002.

“A major function is specialty schooling for children with autism and for those with severe emotional or behavioral issues that cannot be properly addressed in a traditional school setting,” Beam said. “We’re seeing a very steep upward trend in need, especially for children with autism.”

This growing trajectory of need pushed the Baby Fold to expand. The Junior-Senior High, which is currently located at the corner of Towanda Avenue and Fort Jesse Road in Normal, will move into the former Illinois Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Children’s School in north Normal following a $3 million renovation of the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We bought [the building] almost 20 years ago and changed it to be office space. As our school needs expanded, we already owned a building that had the perfect bones for a school – which made for a very practical and affordable expansion.”

Funding for the project came from donor gifts. Hammitt serves 40 school districts in a 60-mile radius of Bloomington-Normal and is the school home to 150 students.  According to Beam, the organization hopes the expansion will allow them to assist an additional 40 children a year.

“We’re going to able to include the technology and space that we need,” she said. “By the time a child needs to come to Hammitt, they should not have to be on a waiting list so that we can help them immediately.”

Part of the revamp was the replacement of the roof and H-VAC system. The facility will include vocational education space and a cooking lab.

“We provide everything from very personalized, individual attention in a classroom with two teachers for eight students to vocational education programs so that they can really learn and work to be sustained, self-sufficient citizens.”

The Baby Fold enjoys 17 business partners who allow students to work and train while preparing for life after graduation.

“[Our partners] take troubled youth that often need a lot of help and they say, ‘Sure, let me teach you how to do some things so that you can have a future.’” Beam said. “We love our community because we have some very special, self-sacrificing people.

A partnership with McLean County Unit 5 Schools embeds Baby Fold employees to directly impact students struggling in the public school atmosphere, covering hundreds more children. Fairview Elementary was the pilot, and it was so successful that the district asked for help at Cedar Ridge Elementary.

“We’re growing, we’re expanding, and we’re hiring,” Beam said. “We are able to provide unique services that you won’t find anywhere else. We are working to set up Bloomington-Normal-McLean County for future success, because these kids that we’re helping are part of that future.”

Beam noted that the Baby Fold is already thinking about the potential need for further growth.

“We are consistently ready and willing to look at what we can do to keep helping kids and families.”

The renovation is expected to be completed by May 2018 so that students can attend classes there in August.

“It will be very satisfying to hear children laughing in those hallways again. It really feels like things have come full circle.