In 2018, Search celebrated 50 years of service to individuals with disabilities, their families and the broader community.
Search got its start in 1968 as a grassroots movement of parents in the Cabrini Green neighborhood of Chicago advocating for the inclusion of their children into the public school system. Standing up against the segregation of people with disabilities from their communities is core to our legacy. Supporting people to live inclusive lives within communities where they are accepted, valued and able to contribute as equals is the foundation of our mission.
Today, Search provides adult learning, supported living, career services, medical and behavioral health services and home-based facilitation services to over 500 adults in Chicago and the northern suburbs.
Our first program site was located in one room of the lumbering Olivet Community Center, on the Near North Side in Chicago, and served 8 children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They had been excluded from the Chicago Public Schools, so a group of parents opened a school of their own, where their children could get equal access to education. The school operated until the 1990s.
Our Early Leadership
Sandra Luchowski was Search’s founding Executive Director, a position she held for 30 years, until her death in 2000. Sandra was a courageous visionary who was able to breathe life into a program philosophy that is now known as Search’s unique brand. She believed that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities deserve to live, work and learn in beautiful, safe and well-cared for environments. Though Search had to fight to overcome many challenges in its early years, Sandra faced these obstacles with good humor, kindness and a generous spirit. She left behind a legacy of quality, dedication to service and a faith in the potential of others which still guides the organization today.
In the early 1970s, Search opened its first adult learning program for individuals at its school who were aging out of services. Given the period, when bell-bottoms and tie dye were popular, the program was appropriately called the “Earth Child Emporium.”
Housed in a storefront on Sheffield Avenue, the Emporium was a small business offering paid-work and a life skills training program. Participants baked bread and created arts and crafts for sale. In the apartment upstairs, individuals learned how to cook, how to take care of an apartment and how to become more independent.
From this modest beginning, Search’s Adult Learning program has grown to serve over 400 people annually in program sites in Mt. Prospect, Evanston, Waukegan, Des Plaines and Lincoln Square in Chicago.
A Turning Point
Between 1986 and 1995, Search opened five group homes for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These were among the first Medicaid Waiver funded residential settings to serve people with disabilities in Illinois. In the beginning, Search faced strong resistance from the communities where the homes were being opened. A person with disabilities living in the community was a radical new idea that some people struggled to accept. Over time, this fear changed to acceptance and welcome.
In 1996, a large nursing home in Uptown was going to be closed by the Department of Public Health for quality of care issues. This left many of its residents at risk of institutionalization. In the course of just six months, Search bought, renovated, furnished and staffed nine new homes for 56 individuals affected by the closure.
This burst of expansion was a turning point for Search. In the years since, the organization has steadily expanded its residential services. Today, Search operates 30 group living arrangements for over 170 individuals. These homes continue Search’s legacy of providing people with disabilities the beautiful, safe and well-cared for homes they deserve, where they can experience all of the fun and responsibility of community living.
An Old Idea Becomes New
In 1997, Search returned to the idea of using small business enterprises to provide pathways to employment and training for people with disabilities. In that year, Search collaborated with a new outdoor apparel company called Horny Toad to provide work training opportunities for our participants. The original concept was for individuals to make camping pillows using remnants of fabric from the clothing manufacturing process. Though this idea was later discarded, it led to the launch of what would become the Planet Access Company (PAC) warehouse. Horny Toad is now known as Toad&Co and has been our corporate partner for over 20 years.
Today, PAC is a full service third-party logistics company serving a number of prominent apparel, footwear and accessories brands. Since its founding, PAC has generated training and paid work for hundreds of people with disabilities, as well as earned income to support Search’s mission. Its success spawned the 2010 launch of Planet Access Co. Store, a retail store located in Lincoln Square.
Twenty-two Years of Sustained Growth and Innovation
The 2000s saw Search expanding and innovating on almost every front. Visibility Arts, a comprehensive visual arts program, was launched in 2000 out of a desire to provide people with disabilities opportunities for self-expression, creativity and achievement. Over the past 18 years, Visibility Arts has grown from serving a handful of individuals to serving over 150 individuals. In 2008, Visibility Arts moved into its flagship gallery and studio space in Mt. Prospect. Eight years later, the program expanded again with the opening of a second studio space and gallery in 2016.
In 2003, Search launched an initiative designed to meet the medical and behavioral health needs of people with disabilities. That program now operates two specialized clinics in Mt. Prospect and Chicago, where over 200 individuals are served by a team of primary care physicians, therapists, nurses and specialists.
Search for Adventure (SFA), Search’s unique travel program came into existence in 2004 with a trip to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. The idea behind SFA was simple. People with disabilities should be able to go on vacations and have fun just like everyone else. Since 2004, SFA has provided 113 fully inclusive and all-expenses-paid vacations to hundreds of individuals. SFA adventures have included trips to the Grand Canyon, NYC, and the Bahamas, among many others.
Responding to a Changing World
In recent years, Search has taken a proactive approach to the changing world around it, which has included an increasing focus on community-inclusion activities, unbundled services, competitive employment and outcomes aligned with the people we serve, based on their interests and priorities.
In 2013, Search successfully merged with a smaller grassroots organization, JJ’s List. This allowed Search to expand opportunities for self-advocacy and disability awareness training. Since the merger, the Disability Awareness Players have experienced record growth and have now trained more than 9,000 people.
In 2015, Search launched a new Community Life program that offers people opportunities to participate in volunteer activities in their local community throughout their program day. Also in 2015, Search consolidated its various employment programs under the umbrella of Career Services. Fueled by a new investment from the Coleman Foundation, this effort significantly expanded job training opportunities and competitive community placements for the individuals we serve.
Past is Prologue
Much has changed at Search over the past 50 years. One thing has not changed. Supporting people to live inclusive lives within communities where they are accepted, valued and able to contribute as equals is still the foundation of Search’s mission.
This commitment to full community inclusion is demonstrated by the daily lives of people receiving services. They volunteer at local charities alongside people of all abilities, engage in self-advocacy, use public transportation and other community resources, connect to their world using the internet and social media, work at local businesses and explore new experiences.
If the past is any indication of the future, we believe Search will continue its track record of creating sustainable, innovative programs that empower people to live full lives in the community for another 50 years.