By Emily Williams
The building that used to house The Bell Center for Early Intervention has been reduced to a pile of earth and rubble, and a new center will rise from the dust in the next year.
Officials with The Bell Center and Brasfield & Gorrie, center volunteers and community supporters were to gather July 25 on a now-empty lot in Homewood to break ground on a bigger and better facility.
For about a month, the center has been operating out of the Trinity United Methodist-Oakmont campus, which the church offered for its use during the build.
According to Bell Center Executive Director Jeannie Colquett, working out of the church is almost like experiencing the center’s past. When the Service Guild and the center’s founder, Betty Bell, first decided to create The Bell Center, their first classes were held in a Sunday school classroom at Trinity UMC’s Oxmoor campus.
With space to continue their programming, work is about to begin to construct the nearly 18,000-square-foot new facility on the center’s existing property. The project is projected to be completed by May 2019, allow the number of participants to increase from 100 to 150 and be The Bell Center’s first ADA-compliant space.
“The halls will be wide enough for participants who have tricycles, wheelchairs or walkers to walk two-by-two down the hallways,” Colquett said.
On the main level, the building will separate spaces for the two main age groups. The left side of the building will be a wing devoted to toddlers and the right side will be devoted to infants. Each will have three rooms, one more than they had in their previous space.
The building also will have classroom and support technology and a therapeutic equipment lend- ing library.
Colquett recalls discussions about creating a new facility beginning in the mid-2000s, but the plan was hampered by the recession. The topic had been shelved until about three years ago, when the board and advisers decided it was time to take on some more space.
Marketing and Development Coordinator Stacey Morales noted that new locations were considered for the project, but none seemed to beat their current location.
“Knocking down a building and then rebuilding on our existing foundation was a pretty risky idea,” Colquett said. “It wasn’t until we were able to purchase the land next door that it really seemed possible.”
The result has been all for the best, Colquett and Morales said, as their location on 29th Court South in Homewood is easily accessible for most of their volunteers and participants.
“We’re close to all of the main highways and interstates,” Morales said. “Plus, we are close to the hospitals.” She said that many of the participants frequently visit hospitals and their doctors because of their disabilities.
Alongside the groundbreaking, the center is announcing a capital campaign to fund the $8.6 million project, with Morales serving as campaign manager and Benny M. LaRussa and Jill V. Deer, former Service Guild president and vice president of development and administration, serving as co-chairs.
LIVE Design Group and Brasfield & Gorrie have signed on as architects and builders for the project, and Lee Perry of Perry Design, a former member of the Service Guild, will take over interior design.
“We also have a steering committee with 32 members who have really hit the ground running,” Morales said.
Throughout the process, Colquett said, she has been sur- prised by the people connected to the center who have volunteered their help.
“When members of the campaign come into the building, they’ll say things like, ‘Oh, I already know what you guys do.’ Then they really see it and leave saying, ‘I had no idea,’” Morales said.
Colquett calls it the “ah-hah” moment, when a donor spends time in the facility and sees the true extent of the Bell Center’s programming.
She said the center has seven programs and participants who visit from 14 counties.
For Colquett, this process has allowed her to see what is in store for The Bell Center in the future.
She has been a member of the Service Guild, but she most fondly recalls when her daughter began participating in the programs in 1995 at 16 months old.
“I remember spending time in the Bright Beginnings baby room in one of the rocking chairs with a cup of coffee in the mornings,” she said. Even though the chairs were uncomfortable and old, she said it was always a comfort to sit there.
Having experienced the building from all three sides – volunteer, parent and administrator – Colquett said, “I’ve always known what the center is, but through this new facility, I can see now what it can be.”
According to Colquette, one of the most exciting aspects of the increased space is the room it has given the center to spread out its infant age groups, particularly providing space for high-risk infant patients.
“More infants are surviving due to medical advances, which is amazing; but that also means that we are seeing infants with more and more significant medical challenges and we want to make sure we are meeting the needs of those higher-risk infants,” Morales said.
Keeping in mind that high-risk infants have much weaker immune systems, the corridor to the infant wing is steps away from the front entrance and leads right toward the high-risk room.
Next door will be a room for Bright Beginnings, a program for infants up to 10 months, which adjoins to a third room for the Little Leapers, participants ages 18 to 20 months old who are transitioning into toddler age programs.
The toddler wing will include a multipurpose room for meetings and gross motor activities, as well as three large toddler rooms. Each toddler room will have access to a smaller viewing room so parents have space to watch the classes.
“If you’ve been to our old facility, you would have noticed parents lining the hallways because we didn’t have enough space for them,” Colquett said. “In these viewing rooms, they’ll be able to watch their kids and they’ll also have space to talk and interact with each other.”
Along the left wall of the building will be a row of smaller rooms, including an office for the Service Guild of Birmingham, rooms for family consultations and small group instruction and a sensory room – one of Colquett’s favorite new features.
“The space will be a calming environment with variable lighting, weighted vests – anything you need for a toddler with sensory challenges,” she said.
Between the two wings there will be outdoor space, with a memory garden leading out to an open playground. The garden will provide the innermost rooms of the facility with natural light.
“The thing I love about this design is all of the windows,” Colquett said. “In our old building there were hardly any windows and it always felt so dark.”
The garden will then open up the playground space, which will be outfitted with astroturf, giving toddlers the sensory feeling of grass on their feet without having to deal with the upkeep of sod.
“We thought about putting in real grass, but our landscapers told us it just wouldn’t work. And there is astroturf that looks like real grass now,” Colquett said.
The second floor of the building will be much smaller than the main level and will house staff offices and workrooms. There will also be an open office space for the center’s staff of teachers, therapists and medical professionals.
“We are a trans-disciplinary facility,” Colquett noted. “So, having that space for everyone to collaborate while they work was important.”
The campaign to raise money for the building will operate outside of the center’s regular fundraisers, but Morales and Colquette are finding opportunities to introduce the new facility to everyone.
On Aug. 25, the junior board will host the 10th annual Tailgate Challenge – a fundraiser that celebrates the upcoming football season – which has always been held on the Bell Center’s property.
“We’re going to block off 29th Court South and have it right next to the property,” Morales said. “We were going to move to a different location, but decided to keep it there so that everyone can see what’s going on.”
For more information and updates, visit thebellcenter.org.