Community Inclusive Recreation: Taking inclusion downtown

Community Inclusive Recreation brings together those with disabilities and the community at large. And its helping both.
The word "inclusive" in Community Inclusive Recreation extends to a neighborhood in the downtown area where the nonprofit is now located. 

On December 27 of last year CIR relocated to a building at 331 Jackson Street West in Battle Creek.

"We made quite a significant investment in a part of downtown that needed help," says Jim Pearl, executive director of CIR. "We put a footprint in a neighborhood that needs revitalization. It just was kind of a rundown area with former businesses and industrial type places."

As part of a turnaround for the neighborhood, CIR joins the Battle Creek Area Math and Science Center which relocated to the site of the former Cereal City space at 167 W. Michigan Avenue in 2013 and the Sullivan Barn located near the corner of Jackson Street and Washington Avenue. The former dairy barn was renovated and now houses various business enterprises.

The addition of these organizations into a neighborhood in need of an infusion of hope and investment has a snowball effect, says Rob Peterson, Downtown Development Director with Battle Creek Unlimited.

Pearl says the building CIR moved in to had been vacant for more than eight years.

"What CIR did with that building just west of downtown is a wonderful addition to the perimeter of downtown. These adjacent neighborhoods are vital to a healthy downtown," Peterson says. "Vitality is all based on people so whenever you retrofit a building to be put back into active use it generates momentum."

The CIR building on Jackson Street is the first structure the organization has ever owned in its 20-year history. Previously it occupied a building on property owned by First Congregational Church. That building was demolished to make room for a playground for children in the church’s child-care program.

The lower level of CIR’s Jackson Street location has an art studio, space for exercise classes, and an area where people can produce television shows for a local cable access network. Offices and training rooms are located on the building’s upper floor.

CIR began in 1994 with a bowling league for people of all abilities. The organization has grown to serve about 1,500 people throughout Calhoun County each year.

Pearl said CIR’s participants range in age from 18 to 75. He said some of them are on the Autism spectrum and some use wheelchairs to get around. The majority of those served by the agency have mental illnesses and physical disabilities.

CIR brings them together regardless of financial or transportation obstacles to enjoy a wide variety of social, recreational and educational activities. About 20 percent of participants are employed in areas such as food service and facilities cleaning.

"We do some soft skills training and teach them how to interact in the community," Pearl says. "We want them to feel connected and be comfortable within their community and with their use of community facilities."

Outings include dinner and a movie or attending Western Michigan University basketball games. CIR provides door-to-door transportation to residents of some of the 80 plus group homes in Calhoun County.

"In a group home the easiest thing to do would be to watch TV," Pearl says. "CIR gives them choices."

Mentors who are among the nine full-time and more than 15 part-time employees assist participants in art classes or accompany them on trips to attractions such as bowling alleys.

"We make it happen so they can participate," Pearl says. "In my mind this is essential because many of them would be isolated without it. Through CIR they can have activities they’re comfortable participating in and they can go off and explore their communities. Our programs are either no or low cost."

CIR has received grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in the past several years to enhance youth development, leadership skills and community service by bringing age-appropriate games, sports, physical fitness activities, arts projects, and cultural awareness programming into low-income neighborhoods free of charge, eliminating the barriers of cost and transportation for young residents.

This gave area youth an opportunity to be team leaders, coaches, and safety instructors. The program was designed to help youth observe one another and respond appropriately; role model; problem solve; accept others; and take turns.

CIR is a participant-driven organization, which means participants are involved in every aspect of the planning and implementation of the programs, Pearl says.

"Places that help people with disabilities are essential," he says. "We have 20,000 people in Calhoun County with disabilities, but they don’t have one voice and they aren’t strong in terms of advocacy for themselves.

"We help people in the community recognize that there are a lot of people with disabilities living among us."

While downtown officials would like to see more projects that generate tax revenue to pay for infrastructure and services, Peterson says CIR fills a need and brings something positive into its new neighborhood.

"What CIR does is really wonderful because they don’t just talk about people who are disabled. They create programs that are inclusive of everyone," he says. "If you call something community inclusive you’re talking about a community that has strength and resiliency."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 

Photos by Susan Andress.
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