By Dustin Brown
The children who will soon toddle into the new whitewashed classrooms of CHIP Harbor in Astoria fall far below the typical age when kids start school — the oldest pupils are only 3 years old.
But the early burst of attention can be a life-changing experience for the young students with autism and developmental delays, many of whom cannot speak or look people in the eye when they start receiving therapy.
“By the time they’re 7 or 8 years old, about half of them will go into regular ed classrooms, and you wouldn’t be able to pick them out if you were standing in a typical second-grade classroom,” said Diane Taranto, the clinical director for the Children’s Home Intervention Program, or CHIP, the agency that runs CHIP Harbor.
The new center opened its doors to children from all over the city for the first time during a grand opening ceremony last Thursday, and students are expected to begin filing into its five classrooms within weeks.
The Vernon Boulevard building with an East River view not only provides a new home for CHIP, which previously had offices cramped into a converted Brooklyn apartment, but also represents a major expansion in the agency’s services.
“What we’ve done is sent clinicians into the children’s homes and provided one-to-one instruction,” Taranto said. “What we’re hoping now in the center is to add the component that they’re missing — socialization — which is very difficult to do when you’re working one-on-one in a child’s home.”
The facility was carved from the shell of a warehouse at 30-15 Vernon Blvd. that once served as an olive-oil bottling plant and was previously used to construct movie sets.
“To convert a warehouse to a center for children was a pretty huge undertaking,” said Executive Director Lois Bond, who founded CHIP with Associate Executive Director Kathleen Kuhlman in 1996.
Bond and Kuhlman first met when they both worked at a pre-school in Brooklyn, and they decided to venture out on their own when the school closed due to funding cuts.
“She and I thought, well, we could do this,” Kuhlman said with a rush of laughter.
The new program filled a desperate gap in the city’s educational opportunities for young children with autism.
“There was a huge need back in the ‘90s and parents were just clamoring for services for children on the autistic spectrum, and there was just none to be had,” Taranto said.
So they started sending therapists into students’ homes, garnering a reputation as a premier service agency for young children with autism.
Five years later, when Bond and Kuhlman first walked into the Vernon Boulevard space as part of their search for a permanent home, it was humming with set construction for “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
“It looked like everything your worst nightmare would imagine it to be,” said Jordan Glass, an attorney who assisted CHIP and saw the space in those early days.
But in the year and a half that have gone by since then, the green corrugated metal covers have been removed from the windows, bathing in light a sparkling new interior where the walls are washed in white.
The warehouse space is now divided into five classrooms, an occupational therapy room, a small gymnasium with a rubber-matted floor and a series of offices for the center’s staff.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” said Bridget Valentine of St. Albans, the grandmother of a 3-year-old boy who already receives home-based services from CHIP. “He’s just started getting to the point where he’ll look at you. He didn’t used to look at you before. He’s not used to being around other children. I think he’ll like it — once he starts to get used to the people.”
As the center finishes securing all of the necessary permits and approvals to run the school, the final but most important step is only days away — welcoming the students.
“We can’t wait to hear little voices echoing in the hall,” Bond said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.