Life Shop fosters life skills

Disabled adults learn nutrition, fitness and planning

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By Jean Lotus


"Person-centered" is how Phil Carmody, president of at Opportunity Knocks describes the leading principle of programs for intellectually-disabled adults offered by the River Forest-based organization. 

"We want Opportunity Knocks to be guided by the interests of the individual Warriors," Carmody said. "Then we want the Warriors to be right at home in the community." Participants, including Phil's brother John, are affectionately dubbed the "Warriors" for their perseverance and strength.

The social and recreational organization has grown swiftly from its humble beginnings as recipient of the proceeds from a charity softball game in 2009. Today, the program, located in the River Forest Community Center, serves 70 participants and employs 21 people.  

Opportunity Knocks, or "OK," is designed to provide structured activities and support for adults who age-out of the special education support services offered at Oak Park and River Forest High School when they turn 22 years old.

The newest project of Opportunity Knocks is the Life Shop, a twice-a-week daytime workshop that focuses on wellness and nutrition, self-autonomy and vocational skills. Ten participant Warriors are enrolled in the pilot day program.

After observing 20 other day programs in the Chicago area, program director and life coach Kim Surprenant and assistant Keely Baldwin decided one pillar of the new program needed to be eating right and getting enough exercise.  

One Thursday Life Shop session began with a get-energized group dance to a YouTube video of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb," screened on the electronic whiteboard donated as part of a technology grant by Options Clearing Corporation. 

Part of the group then traveled to check out some fitness equipment at Gottlieb Hospital's gym. 

Exercise coach and wellness coordinator Jeni Pierce is helping the Warriors choose some fitness equipment for the program, which includes 30 minutes of exercise per day. 

"We take a look at accessibility. Is it easy to get on and off?" Pierce said. "There's the intimidation factor, whether people are hesitant to use it."

"And people mentioned they'd like a cup holder, which we didn't even think of," Pierce added. The group has made field trips to Loyola Hospital's fitness center, the West Cook Y and the Oak Park Tennis and Fitness Center. Trips to Formula Fitness Club and Midtown Fitness are planned. 

Back for lunch after their field trip, participants get ready to eat. Three warriors take turns working as Warrior chefs, plunging into every element of meal preparation. This includes menu planning, listing ingredients, shopping for food, preparation in the on-site kitchen, serving and cleaning up. 

"We make everything collaborative," Surprenant said. "It's all peer-led, so we give them a lot of choices and help them follow through."

On a recent Thursday, the meal, Mexican chicken-and-cheese tacos on whole grain wraps with apple slices and caramel, had been selected by Sonya Taylor. Sonya had requested Spanish rice, but the life coaches came up with a lower-calorie alternative: quinoa prepared with onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, low sodium chicken broth and taco seasoning.

The concept of the "No Thank You" bite has been developed by the group to get Warriors to sample unfamiliar foods, like quinoa. 

"Well, I almost threw up when I tried that!" declared Max Wright, who was a good sport and took several no-thank-you bites anyway. Lunchers also included Charlie O'Connor, Kristopher Bowyer and Darius Nichols.  

Warrior John Carmody helped slice apples and opened cans of diced tomatoes. Jackie Finn and Sonya helped plate and serve the food. Life Shop works with families as well to bring the menu planning and cooking skills back to be used at home.

The Life Shop is also partnering with Whole Foods to coordinate a two-week healthy-living cooking class. "It's a test drive for them and for us," said Surprenant.

Life Shop also features special activity days, planned from beginning to end by the Warriors. 

Participant and train super-fan Max gave a presentation on train safety, including a video and an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine. The group took a trip on the Union Pacific Northwest line on a Metra double-decker to Elmhurst and back.

Other peer-led activities have included a beading workshop, led by Warrior Claire Puiszis; an Irish dancing demonstration, planned by Sonya Taylor; a Halloween gangster bus tour, planned by Patrick O'Rourke; and a spa pampering day with watercolor painting, planned by Jackie Finn. John Carmody was setting up an event involving bowling and watching Wrestlemania clips. The menu item: Hot dogs.

"They're health-itized hot dogs," Surprenant quickly said. "Turkey dogs. We don't really do hot dogs that often."

Opportunity Knocks gets its funding mostly from private and foundation donations, Phil Carmody said. Brother Mike Carmody is Executive Director. They receive grant funding from Oak Park and River Forest townships, with whom they just signed a three-year lease at the Community Center. 

The group is taking steps to become accredited to accept state money for programming.

"We work in a nice collaboration with other local providers, such as West Suburban Special Recreation and Oak-Leyden," said Carmody. "Our program is private-pay and it's different from theirs, but we would like to be able to have participants use the benefits and resources available to them for our program — if they want to," he added. 

The organization relies on "our really awesome events" for much of their operating expenses, Carmody said, as well as a tuition charge that works out to a program cost of about $9.16 per hour per participant, according to their annual report.

Coming up is the group's Night for Opportunities Gala, this Saturday, April 26, held at Galleria Marchetti in Chicago. 

"We have a Roaring '20s theme this year," said Carmody. "We have almost 400 volunteers who help with the events. I think our events are really special."

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Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:31 PM

No one's taking your space, Susan G from FP. Take all the space here that you want. And no one's "hijacking" this thread. What I am doing is responding to yet another person who feels the need to, first, rip the newspaper for, in his uninformed opinion, not reporting a story adequately, when in fact, it was reported just fine. And second, making speculating rankly about questionable and even unethical tactics by a non-profit run by committed people working to make a difference. It's just cheap.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:25 PM

Is having the 990s of one of many dozens of area non-profits "at my finger tips" odd? Well, yeah that would be very odd, Peter. As odd as your expecting an overworked newspaper editor/reporter- or an underworked reporter- to do in-depth research into a social service agency as part of writing a story about a new program. You don't get it, do you. You're the one with the over the top reaction, making much ado about nothing.


Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:24 PM

@ Pater..It's a shame, because you did raise some interesting concerns...however, your unbalanced argument...yes unbalanced (you savaged the organization with unfounded innuendo) topped off with the pretentious delivery, ruined your credibility...The truth is..self-importance can often be a sign of lack of intelligence ;) You could have made your point with approximately three sentences..

Susan G from FP  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:20 PM

I'm asking that the three of you, Bill, Peter, and Observer, free this thread from your hijack. We get it all, o.k.? Go do something constructive or fun and leave room for the rest of us.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:04 PM

You're a name-calling bulldog, Bill. I give you all of the credit due you.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:02 PM

"Try Digging", I just thought Dwyer might have those figures at his fingertips. Dwyer wouldn't think that was odd, would you Bill?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:02 PM

You write more than 1,500 words on a simple article about a new program at a mostly privately funded social services agency, and you have the gall to say that I'M the one who can't leave it alone? LOL back at you. But, yeah, ask around, Peter. I tend to not leave it alone.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:59 PM

Observer, it's all relative, isn't it? Kind of a red herring statement, isn't it? I would think that even someone from a small pond would do better than that. Maybe it's too big for you?

try digging  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:55 PM

@PD -- You already have the 990's, but you've found nonprofit IRS filings unreliable for other orgs in the past, so you come to the anonymous comment section of FPR looking for more information? Pardon me but this seems a little odd. Don't you think that as an org with their exposure and a Form 990 budget of ~$250k, there are bigger fish to fry? By the way, Phil's compensation is listed on pg 7 as 0(zero). I'm done with this except to maybe write them a check ;-).

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:50 PM

Can't leave alone, can you Bill? Name-calling? lol. Hey, learn grammar and get back to me. lol

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:47 PM

Wait. Oh God, I just saw the Carmody brothers drive by in the Opportunity Knocks staff Lamborghini. Maybe I was wrong after all.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:41 PM

"I'm not, btw, implying Phil or anyone there is doing this, but I don't know. Do you?" Gosh, Peter, I'm not implying you do drugs or beat your wife. Really, I'm NOT. But, well, I really don't know for sure, do I? Are you OK with all that? If not, you need to stop being such a speculative jerk, pal. Because your idiotic approach is a ridiculous response to a straight up story about an established social services agency that has the support of lots of people.


Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:37 PM

@ Peter...Yep we are just regular town folk here...I wonder how you would do in the New Republic forum..? I wonder if you would stand out "the way you do here" or just appear average with that crowd? ;0 fun to be a big fish in a small pond eh? ;) Test your mettle on that forum/comment section...let us know how you do ;)

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:35 PM

What needs to be "put to bed," Peter, is nonsense like "discovered improprieties including excessive executive salaries, misallocation of funds, and/or simply not doing or not doing satisfactorily what they claim and are financed." If you're damn concerned, go to Guide Star, as one poster suggested, and look it up yourself. There's no THERE there. Your critique is just supposition and speculation. And journalists are obligated to bring out the fine tooth comb for every story the write. Get real.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:34 PM

To "trydigging", I accessed that website's data knowing in advance much of it has been inaccurate for me the frequent times that I've used it. Also, brother Phil's salary does not seem to be in there or I somehow missed it. Also not reported are perks such as personal use of company cars, financing for in-home offices, and the typical below-the-surface techniques to pad one's income. I'm not, btw, implying Phil or anyone there is doing this, but I don't know. Do you?

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:27 PM

Lol, thank you, Observer, for your observation. I see your point and it's valid. By virtue of my career and jobs and such, that is my writing style but it's a bit much for this venue. A big bit!

try digging  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:26 PM

@PD, on the OK website they have a link to something called guidestar. based on 30 seconds of scanning this is a transparency org for non-profits. You can register with guidestar and take a look at OK's 2012 Form 990 filings with the IRS. Page 7 shows compensation of officers, directors, key employees. All zeros (i.e. volunteers) except Michael Carmody who lists 40 hrs/wk with a nominal salary. OK expenses ~$250k/yr. Agree BD, looks good, and in Proviso definitely not something to worry about.


Posted: April 26th, 2014 5:13 PM

@ Peter...Yes you are correct, your concerns are valid and worthy of debate. The problem I see, is in your condescending approach: "I'm the smartest guy in the room" demeanor..We get are intelligent and can put together a thought and a sentence..You may want to consider paring it down a bit..ever here of "edit" ? tl;dr is usually reserved for those who bloviate up on it ;) Let's here from Opp Knock folk!

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 4:59 PM

Bill, I think your last comment was a good place to put our other-directed sarcasms and the like to bed. Here's part of my beef. Ms. Lofton, who did a fairly in-depth job delving into possible issues and concerns at Triton (and, I understand that you have done the same in your writings) then went on to put on the table a highly caloric but nutritionally empty piece about "OK". As you know, programs similar to "OK" in one or more respects have been in the papers in regard to discovered improprieties including excessive executive salaries, misallocation of funds, and/or simply not doing or not doing satisfactorily what they claim and are financed, often with taxpayer dollars, to do satisfactorily. Reference "ABJ" in regard to use or possible misuse of D.C.F.S. funds just a week or two ago. When organizations like "OK" get or begin applying for state and/or federal funding, more in-depth financial and service-allocation scrutiny is called for, in my opinion. "OK" may, in fact, be o.k., but let's examine it critically, not with spoon-fed, sugar-coated pablum, now that it's applying for a state grant. I always like to know what the top executives at service-oriented and non-profit organizations make, and see if these salaries are a good fit with the organization in general. I still want to know the amount of the Carmodys' salaries, and I suggest funding agencies try to find out as well for assessment, if they haven't already.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 4:03 PM

Oh no, not "ambiguity attempting to disguise itself as insight"? I just hate when that happens. I agree with your point that government finances at the local to national level have been totally FUBARed. And I accept your concern that funding another social services program carries the risk of yet another SNAFU. But I don't accept what I see as the usual NIMBY attitude so many around here espouse. Hope that isn't too ambiguous but if it is, hey, WTF, huh?

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 3:15 PM

One quick reiterative point. I'm not now stating nor have I stated that "OK" is not a good program; it may be. I simply have questions about it (or is "it" really "they")?

Peter Derwin from Brookfield  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 3:12 PM

You're a journalist? Wow! Here's what you wrote: "Your arguments are sloppy and verbose, Peter". Yet, you wrote nothing substantive to address them much less counter them in your latest comment/"argument". You wrote, "I know about Opp Knocks because I covered it as a journalist, saw their operations, saw that they serve a necessary purpose that from everything I'm able to tell, makes a difference in some people's lives". How definitive: "... from everything that I've been able to tell ... makes a difference in some peoples' lives". Your writing, as exemplified in your latest comment, comes across as ambiguity attempting to disguise itself as insight, and tell me, if you had to choose, is "Opp Knocks" an "it" or a "they" from your august journalistic perspective? lol. But, I don't wish to dwell on, what I perceive to be, your writing and logic deficiencies. I know what I wrote makes some sense and is worthy of some serious consideration (right, Observer?). Maybe someone would care to make a relevant comment in response?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 2:44 PM

Your arguments are sloppy and verbose, Peter. And when you use words like "potentially" you water down whatever argument is (are) hiding in your many hundreds of words. I know about Opp Knocks because I covered it as a journalist, saw their operations, saw that they serve a necessary purpose that from everything I'm able to tell, makes a difference in some people's lives. Your writing comes across as a screed, not a thoughtful argument. BTW, I'll work on a reply to your WTF comment ASAP.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield, Illinois  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 11:14 AM

Observer, I don't know what a "tl;dr" is. Sounds ominous. Glad, in your view, the boundary hasn't been crossed. Mr. Dwyer, you think I sound unhinged in regard to this topic? Can you maybe add some credence to your statement by attempting to effectively rebut my arguments? In regard to "OK" being a widely and well respected program, maybe so --- I haven't taken nor seen a poll indicating your assertion. Please be clear. I'm not indicting "OK"; I'm asking questions about it. I question where community funds go, and where my taxpayer monies will potentially go. It may be a good program. Since you seem to know some information about it, do you know what the executive salaries are? BTW, I loved the "WTF". That stays within the boundaries of terms of service, right?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 11:03 AM

Lord, Peter, you're starting to sound unhinged. If this is your approach to opposing the corruption at Triton, you're dead from the start. Opportunity Knocks is a widely and well respected program that provides helpful services for disabled young adults. They are overwhelmingly privately funded. So they're applying for a state grant. WTF? Your point? And try to convey it in a nutshell., if you can.


Posted: April 26th, 2014 10:53 AM

@ are getting dangerously close to a tl;dr ;) You certainly appear to be the right kind of individual to fully scrutinize and explore every angle...I respect that. You also appear to have lots of time to develop thought provoking ideas..I look forward to hearing from the principals in response to the questions you pose or perhaps from the families that have members involved in the program.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 10:39 AM

What if I told you that I have a car that, by design and manufacture, is limited to and cannot exceed a top speed of 75 miles per hour, but that I intend to make it go faster by putting, for example, a turbocharger on it? Mind you, the way that the car is built will not accommodate a speed higher than 75 miles per hour, and any attempt to do so will result in mechanical break-down. What if I told you that an individual, by virtue of "design" or genetic/environmental interaction, could not successfully, given the current state of the art, solve the equation, "The square root of 49 divided by .5", and understand the mathematical concepts and operations underlying the solution, but that I was going to hire a cadre of special education teachers, principals, Ph.D. consultants, rehabilitation specialists, curricula-design specialists, even speech therapists to seek to attain the goal of having the individual do so? Mind you, by definition, this individual is "mentally retarded" meaning that there is a "built-in", lower than average, intellectual limitation. Rationally, objectively, would you in either or both cases tell me that the money would be well-spent? What if told you that I was going to spend your money, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, over 14 years of special educational classes on, in part, teaching an intellectually disabled person to follow a few simple two-step commands, boil hotdogs, slice cucumbers, and use a remote to access a pay-per-view Wrestlemania feature, and, then, after those 14 years, demand more money from you to provide much the same training in an essentially day or after-care program? I understand keeping such individuals out of institutions is both humane and cost-effective, but the concept of potentially throwing money away on, what seems to be on the surface, "wonderful" community programs without critical and objective evaluation of those programs is just plain silly in my view. And, Mr. Dwyer, "OK" is seeking state funding.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 10:33 AM

From the copy in the article: "Opportunity Knocks gets its funding mostly from private and foundation donations, Phil Carmody said. Brother Mike Carmody is Executive Director. They receive grant funding from Oak Park and River Forest townships, with whom they just signed a three-year lease at the Community Center."


Posted: April 26th, 2014 10:30 AM

@ first glance I was intending on dismissing your rant as overly critical, however, it is important to conduct due diligence. I have not seen any complaints against the group and the approach seems to foster an environment conducive to social inclusion, full community membership, belonging and a sense of purpose and valued roles for people with disabilities. In the past people with these limitations were often institutionalized, I am hopeful that the principals have good intentions.

Peter Derwin from Brookfield  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 9:22 AM

"How would you make it better"? How good is it now? Do you have any objective supportive data to answer that question or are you just knee-jerking to the glowing article that makes it sound wonderful? How much do the Carmody's in particular get paid? What about the other staff members? And, then there's this. I'm assuming that for most of their formal educational years, 14 plus I imagine, the taxpayers forked over money to their school districts to provide expensive special educational services to these people with disabilities. I'm assuming that many, if not all, of the areas "OK" seeks to address have been addressed already by special educational services. So, now "OK" is seeking state funding to replicate these services? That's "state funding" as in taxpayers' money used again for the same services? If "OK" gets that money, no doubt services at "OK" will be enhanced: more and better-qualified instructors, more equipment, more field trips to "view" facilities and operations, and would it be too much to assume that "OK" employees including the Carmodys' will see significant salary benefits as well? How will this redundant taxpayer expense be justified? Is "OK" anything more than an adult day-care center for the disabled with fancy, verbally-festooned program names? If so, where is the substantive proof for it. I don't know about you, but I want to know where my money is going and the good use its intended to be put to.


Posted: April 26th, 2014 8:13 AM

Peter, what would you like the leaders to teach these folks to help them better? Cleaning houses, building bridges, developing software programs? I don't know; I read the article and think the program sounds wonderful. Taking the adults to different fitness facilities to try equipment before purchasing any sounds like a smart way to approach it. And what's the matter with a little wrestle mania? All in good fun (they are allowed some fun aren't they?). How would you make it better?

Peter Derwin from Brookfield  

Posted: April 26th, 2014 6:18 AM

So, here we have a set of "Person-centered" programs for intellectually disabled adults 22 years old and older presumably to better equip them to become more independent and to "be right at home in the community". These programs are under the umbrella program titled "Opportunity Knocks" or "OK". The participants are referred to as "Individual Warriors" which includes "Warrior Chefs" utilizing techniques such as the "No Thank you bite", and they participate in projects such as "Life Shop" which presumably focuses on nutrition, vocational skills, and get this, "self-autonomy" (probably my cognitive limitation, but wondering how, other than by spelling, "self-autonomy" differs from plain old "autonomy"). Within the "Life Shop" programs are activities such as the "beading workshop", watching Wrestlemania clips, and viewing fitness equipment. Is it just my constricted way of thinking again, but is there a contradiction here? On the one hand, some of these programs and their components are presumably designed to make the adult participants "be right at home in the community" yet a number of them have almost cartoonish, infantilized names such as "OK", "No Thank you bite", and possibly "beading workshop". No doubt having them watch Wrestlemania clips will help with significant community integration as well. The participants are referred to as "Individual Warriors" and "Warrior Chefs", nomenclature that I'm sure will help them land community jobs, if put on their resumes. Give me a break. What I'm wondering is the salaries of the Carmody's, and to what extent these salaries aid them to "be right at home in the community"?

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