New $8 million Emerge Center triples space for critical services

The Emerge Center, a new state-of-the art facility offering help for those with communication, behavior and developmental difficulties, is open.

The center, formerly the Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation, will now be able to serve up to 300 children per week in its therapeutic preschool, up to 100 children per year in its integrated autism program, treat up to 60 occupational therapy clients per week and help twice as many with hearing problems.

“This triples our space and triples the number of children we can serve,” says Executive Director Melissa Juneau. “It also allows us to double the number of auditory patients.”

It all came together in just three years of planning and fundraising.

“The community just really came together around this cause,” says Juneau.

The ribbon on the $8 million 26,000-square-foot facility located in LSU’s Innovation Park was officially cut Friday, but clients and students will transfer to the Emerge Center on April 22.

The center’s new name, Juneau says, reflects the growth of the organization, its expansion of services, its geographical reach and its mission to empower “children and adults to reach their greatest potential and to effectively communicate and interact.”

The roots of today’s Emerge Center were planted in 1960 when the Baton Rouge Speech & Hearing Foundation began as a project of the Junior League of Baton Rouge to provide early intervention for preschool children with speech and hearing problems. Quota Club International came on board as a sponsor in 1962.

In 2004, BRSHF began its applied behavioral analysis therapy program for autistic clients, becoming one of the only facilities in Louisiana offering an early intervention program for preschool children, combining one-on-one intensive treatment with group speech therapy and occupational therapy in a year-round, educational setting.

At the time there were four students. Today there are 48 children with an average waiting list of 70. It costs close to $120 per child, per day to run the program.

Among the first to step up to make the Emerge Center a reality was the Albemarle Foundation, which gave $1.5 million. By the end of 2011, close to $4 million had been secured from 70 donors and from new markets tax credits from the East Baton Rouge Parish Redevelopment Authority.

Major contributors included Dee Dee Reilly and her late husband Kevin, Sue Turner and her late husband Bert, the Irene & C.B. Pennington Foundation, the Huey & Angelina Wilson Foundation and CB&I. Their names can be found on different areas of the center, like the conference room, classrooms, gym, rock climbing wall, cafeteria, parent resource room, audiology testing areas and playground.

“The Robinsons (Sandi and Chip Robinson, founders of the Battle Against Autism) have been a key catalyst,” says Juneau. “They helped build a broader awareness for the need for a center like ours and reached millions with their advertising and fundraisers. It was a snowball effect with the changing of our name … they’ve been a huge friend.”

Matt and Sherri McKay “closed out the campaign for us,” she adds, and the board of directors also stepped up to the plate with “plenty of involvement.”

Former board Chairwoman Colleen Waguespack headed up the capital campaign.

“It’s been an incredible project to be a part of and the benefit for the community … it’s amazing,” says Juneau. “In many respects it’s been a very humbling experience.”

And not just for her, but for the staff and workers, too.

“It motivates them that their work is benefiting children,” Juneau says. “Everyone is determined to get the biggest bang for the buck. Everybody is aware that we’ve been given a gift, and they’re bound and determined to do it right.”

The facility has 11 classrooms, each with its own observation room; 12 one-on-one speech therapy labs; and a group therapy room. There was a lot of attention to detail, right down to color choices and tile patterns to best stimulate the children. All of the needed therapies are now under one roof, including a newly added psychology component.

“It allows that family to bring their child to us and know they’re getting the best help and when they leave the center they can go home with their family and not spend their time going from place to place to get services,” says Juneau.

The Emerge Center also includes a new kindergarten, which, as part of the Children’s Development Center and its cafeteria, helps prepare the children for “big school.”

The center serves 28 parishes and six counties in Mississippi, as well as clients in Arkansas and Texas. It is expanding its partnership with LSU and establishing partnerships with Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and others.

“We’re hiring 60 LSU students a semester. They get hands-on experience and learn a lot,” explained Juneau. “It helps prepare them (for working) and especially for interacting with parents.

“We’re attracting staff from all over the nation,” she continued. “We’re working to gather data to attract research dollars and collaborate with partners. We are now the place for people who work in this field. This new facility offers us so much untapped potential to become a regional … a national player. It’ll be nice to see what the next five years bring.”