by Caroline Connors

From the outside, Garden Center Services (GCS) looks like many of the other mid-20th-century brick buildings that line Kedzie Avenue in Mt. Greenwood. But it’s what happens on the inside of the building every day that sets it apart.

A multi-program agency founded in 1956 by a group of parents who wanted more opportunities for their children with developmental disabilities, GCS serves the community at large by helping the people it serves live independent and fulfilling lives.

Originally housed in rented space above a garage at Reavis High School in Burbank, GCS has expanded over the years to include three day-program sites and 11 group residences. Approximately 160 adults with developmental disabilities, who are known at GCS as its consumers, currently participate in the day programs, and another 80 reside in group homes located in Burbank, Chicago Ridge, Cicero, Oak Lawn and Westmont.

For the past two years, GCS has operated a day program in Mt. Greenwood at 10444 S. Kedzie Ave. Together with the day programs in Burbank and Tinley Park, the Mt. Greenwood facility provides vocational, social and daily living-skills training. About 75 to 80 people are at the Mt. Greenwood center on any given day, said Development Director Jennifer Georgis, with most coming from the local community and the neighboring suburbs of Evergreen Park and Oak Lawn.

On a recent Friday, a handful of consumers at the Mt. Greenwood facility sat together at a table painting pictures while another group exercised to a workout video. On other days, consumers might travel to Burbank to work in the center’s recycling center, shredding center or print shop, or head over to Hardboiled Coffee Company, 9135 S. Western Ave., to roast and package the coffee beans that are used for the signature blend GCS sells under its own label.

There are also frequent visits to the Garden Gallery & Studio in Tinley Park, where individuals at all skill levels and artistic abilities have the opportunity to create art. The work is showcased in the gallery along with the creations of artists from the local community.

Initially started as an art therapy program, the studio and gallery have grown into a space where local artists and consumers come together to work and talk side by side, Georgis said. The work produced by the consumers, mostly woven products and hand-painted scarves, is sold at the gallery and at several independent retailers, including Mona Lisa, 12330-B S. Harlem Ave., in Palos Heights, and the Blossom Boys, 9911 S. Walden Pkwy., in Beverly.

Artwork is also on display the first Friday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m. for the gallery’s “First Friday” events, which are free and open to all ages, and include live music and snacks provided by a local eatery.

While the gallery is the “sparkle” of GCS, Georgis said, the organization is also committed to giving back to the communities in which its programs are located by means of volunteer work.

“Our community crusaders deliver meals on wheels, wash children’s toys at the Oak Lawn Children’s Museum and help bake at the Ronald McDonald House,” Georgis said. “Our goal is to get them out and involved in the community; it does wonders for their self-esteem because they’re the ones who are helping others instead of being helped.”

GCS also provides service to the community through the Second Chance Thrift Shoppe, a resale business it operates in downtown Lemont, Georgis said.

On Saturday, March 22, the organization will host a drive to restock supplies that have been depleted during the winter months; from 8 to 11 a.m. donations of clothes, toys, books, collectibles and home goods will be accepted at the Mt. Greenwood facility.

With the continued uncertainty of state funding, GCS hosts several other events throughout the year to raise funds for programming. These events include the fourth annual potting party at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W. 115th St., on April 4, and the second annual Super Sunny 5K Walk ’n’ Roll-a-thon on June 7 at the Newcastle Recreation Center in Burbank. The 5K event will also include a drawing for a 2013 Fiat 500 provided by Bettenhausen Fiat in Tinley Park.

Like many other organizations of its type, GCS continually seeks support to help it continue its mission of providing outstanding services to adults with disabilities.

Palos Park resident Katie Driscoll recently began volunteering with the organization by providing the photography for its Web site through her business 5boysand1girlmake6 Photography.

“I support this organization because they progressively advocate for individuals with disabilities by creating programs that tap into their strengths and give their clients the ability to share their strengths within the community,” Driscoll said. “It comforts me knowing there are program like Garden Center Services available to individuals who need assistance in job training and gaining independence.”

For more information on GCS, visit its Web site at