Facility houses program that focuses on building strong families

URBANA – The Doris Kelley Christopher Hall houses a program focused on building strong families, so perhaps it's no surprise the building is homier than the typical academic facility.

Sure, there's the standard lobby with plush armchairs, but there's also a separate wing complete with a full kitchen, dining room, living room and courtyard.

Save for the seven or so video cameras and microphones, it looks a lot like a real home.

That's the point.

In an interview room adjacent to the suite, University of Illinois researchers can study families as they go about doing, well, family things: making dinner, eating dinner, lounging around after dinner. If, for example, researchers were looking into how families connect around mealtimes, staff would give the family groceries, watch them cook dinner, see what they do and how they operate, said Laurie Kramer, director of the Family Resiliency Center.

Family resiliency is all about helping families be strong, Kramer said.

"We all face lots of difficult challenges. ... Families need information, strategies to help them function better," she said. "The goal is to use research to figure out better ways to deal with challenges," she added.

Home to the Pampered Chef Family Resiliency Program, the hall is named after Doris Kelley Christopher, founder of The Pampered Chef. Her gift of $10 million helped fund the building. Christopher, a 1967 UI grad in home economics, has also provided money for the program and an endowed chair.

Kramer and other UI faculty moved into the building last spring, but the official ribbon-cutting (with Pampered Chef shears) will be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. The event will include speeches by university administration and faculty, as well as by Christopher.

The building is just down and across the street from the UI Child Development Lab, where Kramer used to conduct her research in a former kitchen storage room.

The building is also right off Lincoln Avenue, making it easy for area residents and staff with social service agencies to visit.

The center, Kramer said, is not just a place for faculty to conduct research and deliver lectures. It's a place where research, education and public engagement are all integrated, she said.

A resource center on the east side of the building is being stocked with books and videos for parents, educators and professionals with area social service agencies who work with families.

There are also meeting rooms located around the building where community groups such as the C-U Autism Network can meet.

There are craft tables and play areas for children and a consulting room where families can meet with staff.

The building also features a control room where students and researchers can monitor and control the video cameras in the family suite. Downstairs is a studio where staff can produce educational videos or hold seminars. The building also houses faculty offices and classrooms.

Aaron Ebata, associate professor of social development and extension specialist, directs the resource center. He envisions it as a "gateway between the community and university," a place where university staff or area residents can come to review information about parenting or learn about area resources.

Eventually the center could host workshops on a variety of parenting topics, such as caring for elderly relatives, international adoptions or mixed-race families, he said.

"We wanted to engage in the community in a meaningful way," Ebata said.

Student interns will be able to interact with visiting members of the community and find out what kind of resources they need.

The resource center will open Nov. 1.

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