With New Leadership Comes Innovative Plan for Chicago’s Anixter Center

Chicago Hearing Society

Juan Vaglienty remembers very clearly the first time his toddler daughter, Amelia, spotted and grabbed an object.

Amelia, now five, was two at the time. Vaglienty had placed a toy, a musical, blinking robot encased in a clear plastic ball, on Amelia’s breakfast tray. As the ball spun, emitting light and music, “we saw her glance at it, and her arm went out and grabbed it,” says Vaglienty, 42, an attorney who lives in Chicago’s Norwood Park neighborhood.

“It was a big deal, a milestone,” Vaglienty says, “like hearing your child talk for the first time or take a first step.”

The reach was remarkable because Amelia was born with Pallister- Killian Syndrome, a genetic condition that has left her with many challenges. She is legally blind, nonverbal, and has cognitive as well as physical disabilities.

On the advice of their geneticist, Vaglienty and his wife, Anna Wojtowicz, 41, a physical therapist, began taking Amelia to play sessions at Lekotek, a division of Chicago-based Anixter Center.

During monthly sessions at Lekotek, Amelia plays with adaptive toys designed to teach children with disabilities. The toys, which cost about $600 each, are part of Lekotek’s Adaptive Toy Lending Library, which has more than 10,000 toys. Families, who pay a sliding-scale membership fee based on income, can take home five toys a month, then bring them back and check out five new toys. The membership also includes an hour a month with a play specialist, plus meetings with parent groups four times a year. “We pay the membership, and it’s worth it,” Vaglienty says.

Playing with the toys got Amelia interested in switches, which children with disabilities can use to communicate, Vaglienty explains. “You activate a switch — it’s cause and effect,” he says. Using a switch can help Amelia communicate with her family; one machine, for instance, has prepared messages such as “I’m hungry,” “More, please,” and “I’m all done,” that she can convey to her parents during mealtimes.

“It’s a great service,” Vaglienty says of Lekotek. “I tell everyone, it’s a game changer for these kids.”

For 97 years, Anixter Center, the parent agency of Lekotek, has worked to be a game changer for broad populations of people who need help.

“We are one of the only agencies that serves every single age group and every single disability category,” says Teresa Garate, Anixter Center’s president and CEO. The list of groups served includes people with psychiatric, developmental, cognitive, physical and sensory disabilities; those who are deaf or hard of hearing; and those who need substance-abuse treatment. Anixter Center serves about 8,000 clients a year; Chicago Hearing Society, one of its three divisions, alone helps more than 1,500 people annually.

Teresa Garate, Anixter Center president and CEO
Teresa Garate, Anixter Center president and CEO. Photo: Chicago PhotoPress

Many of Anixter Center’s clients hear about the center via word of mouth; referrals also come from healthcare and behavioral health professionals. The state of Illinois also has a system for referring people to Anixter Center.

Garate, who holds a PhD in special education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, took the helm at Anixter Center 10 months ago and since then has been working on a plan to improve Anixter Center, both internally and externally, and to boost the center’s profile in the Chicago area.

Going into the job, Garate envisioned what she calls “a plan of innovation, quality and growth,” and says her plan is coming to fruition. Anixter’s 400 employees, for instance, have been challenged to rethink almost everything, from establishing metrics for their work to ensuring that their work is top-quality. “Those questions had never been asked before,” Garate says, adding that Anixter Center’s board of directors has been “supportive and hungry to get the agency re-energized,” she says.

“Anixter Center was always a very respected name as an agency that has been around for a long time,” says Garate, noting she’s been in the field for more than 25 years.

As for raising awareness of Anixter Center, Garate points out that the center’s biggest building is a big red-brick edifice, on Clybourn Avenue just north of Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park. “Unless you drive by that building, you won’t know” what or where Anixter is, she says.

She plans to decentralize services — move some of them out of that big building on Clybourn and into the community. More buildings mean “more places for our brand,” Garate says, as well as more accessibility to Anixter Center’s services. Garate has also been doing more public speaking, to raise Anixter Center’s profile, and is working on a more robust marketing campaign.

That leads Garate to Anixter Center’s May 13 benefit, the theme of which is “Advocating for All Abilities.” Advocacy, Garate says, is as much part of Anixter’s mission as is providing services to those who need them.

Above and beyond those services, “our role is to advocate not just for better funding, but for better access to the community,” Garate says.

“There’s still a lot of ignorance in Illinois about what it means to have people with mental illness living in the community.” Plus, she adds, “it’s a lot less expensive to service people in communities than in institutions.”

This year is the first the benefit will take place on a Friday evening, and music and dancing will lend more of a gala feel. Another first: The involvement of Com Ed President and CEO, Anne Pramaggiore, and Pamela Cullerton as co-chairs, both of whom Garate has known and worked with for many years. Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court is the evening’s honoree, due to her lifelong advocacy for people with disabilities.

Garate expects about 400 people for the event, and has set a fundraising goal of $600,000. Proceeds will fund Anixter Center’s programs, and help it maintain its nonprofit niche. “Whichever way you walk in the door, you should have services for your life span,” Garate says.

Rich, a client of Anixter's New Focus program, and JoAnne
Rich and JoAnne. Rich is a client of Anixter’s New Focus program, which works with people who have suffered brain injuries. Photo: Chicago PhotoPress

Anixter Center’s 5th Annual Benefit for Ability 

When: Friday, May 13, 6 p.m.

Where: Winter Garden at Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., Chicago

Dress: Business attire

Tickets: From $400 per person

For more information: 847-869-5423; Anixter.org

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