Coach's Campaign finally coming to fruition at Cunningham Children's Home

Coach's Campaign finally coming to fruition at Cunningham Children's Home

URBANA — How excited are the kids at Cunningham Children's Home about the prospect of the new Education and Recreation Facility moving into the construction phase later this month?

"A couple of kids saw the designs and said 'I'm not leaving this place until I get to be in the building,'" said Sharla Jolly, Cunningham's director of advancement. "That just shows the excitement for what's about to happen."

Groundbreaking for the ERC, which will house Cunningham's two schools, gymnasium and cafeteria, is set for Aug. 20, with Lou and Mary Henson among the guests in attendance. It was a 2007 visit to Cunningham by the Hensons that set into motion the idea for an updated facility.

During that visit, Illinois' winningest basketball coach took a look at the gym and said, "No child should have to play sports in this facility."

Not long after that, with the help of longtime Cunningham supporter and former Illini star Kendall Gill, the Hensons launched the Coach's Campaign, aimed at raising money to fund a new facility. With the crash in the economy in 2008 and a change in leadership at Cunningham, the project stalled, but thanks to the persistence of the Hensons and donors like former Cunningham board member Dave Line, the $14 million project is on track to be completed by the fall of 2018.

Students are expected to occupy the facilities in January 2019.

"Those buildings the schools are housed in were temporary buildings, and they were 20 or 30 years past the date they should have been used," Line said. "The children are much more complex now than the kids they were seeing when the buildings were put on the campus. They really need a new school desperately."

Line joined the board shortly after the Coach's Campaign was launched. He has seen first-hand how Cunningham improves the lives of the children who utilize the facilities.

Line, who worked in health care administration and now owns Smoothie King franchises in Champaign, grew up poor in western Illinois, but says he always had unconditional love at home.

He recognized that the children at Cunningham dealing with emotional and learning disabilities aren't as lucky as he was.

"That made all the difference in the world to me, so I love this organization and I love this cause. That's why I got so involved," he said. "Cunningham is a real jewel in this community, and in a relatively short amount of time, they transform those kids from kids going nowhere ... to those who can actually live a relatively normal life.

"It's a sigh of relief that this is finally getting done."

Of the $14 million for the facility, about $8.5 million will come from private donations. Nearly 60 percent of that has been raised, Jolly said Friday.

Fundraising events — in conjunction with the United Methodist Women, which supports Cunningham — will be held as they continue to climb toward that goal.

"We're doing mailings, trying to stay in touch with people and having one-on-one conversations with people who have supported us," Jolly said. "We've had great support in our community for years."

The gym at the ERC will be named in honor of Lou and Mary Henson as a token of appreciation for their contributions, both monetarily and in their vision for the new facilities.

"They do a major job over there for the kids," Lou Henson said. "We've been really involved and it's exciting."

The ERC will replace the Gerber School and Circle Academy, special-education programs located on the 32-acre campus. The new facility will cover 50,000 square feet, including the cafeteria and gymnasium.

The gym will be used for athletic competitions, concerts, plays, school meetings and therapy rooms, among other things.

The ERC will have 13 classrooms and offer the latest in educational technologies to meet the academic needs of individual students, officials said.

"We're at a point now where this facility is really a must," Jolly said. "To be able to move our kids out, move the staff into this new space that's going to give them exactly what they need to be able to do their work better, is incredible."