By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Don’t be fooled by names. Despite its name, the Guild for Exceptional Children, a non-profit Brooklyn agency that assists developmentally disabled people, doesn’t just help children. Many of its clients are elderly and have been with the agency for nearly 50 years.
The agency is making plans to renovate its Bay Ridge headquarters to better accommodate its elderly members thanks in part to a $1.9 million grant from the City Council.
The grant, coupled with an estimated $400,000 that the Guild for Exceptional Children (GEC) plans to raise on its own, will allow the agency to move its senior citizens program from its current location on the second floor of its headquarters at 260 68th St. to the first floor.
That’s no small matter, according to GEC Executive Director Paul Cassone, who said the elderly developmentally disabled clients, many of them in their 70s and 80s, are having trouble navigating the stairs. “We do have an elevator. But I would hate to think about what would happen in the event of a fire and we had to get all of our people out,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
The GEC has been looking for a way to renovate the first floor to create larger spaces that would allow the agency to move the senior citizens program down to the first floor for more than 20 years.
“A set of floor plans for this had been done 20 years ago. The problem has always been how do we pay for it,” Cassone said.
Enter Councilman Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst) and Councilman Domenic Recchia (D-Coney Island-Gravesend), who worked to obtain the money.
Recchia is chairman of the council’s Finance Committee.
On Sept. 27, the two lawmakers held a press conference at GEC headquarters to announce that the grant money has been approved.
“We were very fortunate to find some friends who were willing to fight for us,” Cassone said.
The grant is greatly needed, said Anthony Cetta, president of GEC’s board of directors. “The challenges for GEC continue to grow. We have an aging population. That shows signs of success but that also brings its own challenges,” he said, adding that the challenges include updating its programs to meet the needs of the developmentally disabled client as they age.
“You are helping the most vulnerable of society,” Cetta told Gentile and Recchia.
The GEC was founded in 1958 by a small group of Bay Ridge parents whose children were developmentally disabled. The parents believed that schools and institutions did not provide the kinds of services their children needed so they started the program themselves, Cassone said.
Over the years, GEC has grown from a small program with a handful of children to a multi-faceted agency that assists clients of all ages and provides help for the families of clients. The agency has day care programs, classes for children, and occupational training, and job training for adults. GEC also sponsors group homes where clients live with counselors and residential apartments for clients who are semi-independent.
Gentile, who called GEC “and anchor and icon in the community,” said that while the agency operates centers all over southwest Brooklyn, “this building is still home central.”
The 68th Street building hasn’t been renovated since 1974, Gentile said. “I was in junior high school!” he said.
Recchia, who as finance committee chairman has to sort through funding requests from hundreds of non-profits all over the city, said he looks to see if the applicants perform vital services. “You look at the needs and wants of the community and the number of people they serve,” he said.
The GEC, Recchia said, “has “a great staff and great leadership.”
Cassone called the grant “a tremendous boost” and said GEC would be supplementing the grant with fundraising.
GEC receives the bulk of its operating funds from New York State. But since 2008, when the fiscal crisis hit, the agency has had to supplement decreasing state funds by reaching out to other funding sources, Cetta said.