A few blocks down Main Street from the Robert Crown Community Center and Washington Elementary School lies a building you may not know much about – the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Children’s Center.

Strolling through the center’s hallways on a Tuesday afternoon in December, staff members were setting up holiday decorations like streamers and Christmas trees, while kids played the xylophone and the recorder during music class.

“A lot of people just don’t know that we’re here or don’t know what we do,” said Elissa Garcia, director of residential services at Rice. “But I have found that when people learn about what we do, everybody is curious, and if people are able to, they want to help. I think the most important thing people can give is their time, and that’s often the hardest thing.”

The Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Children’s Center sits on the corner of Washington St. and Ridge Ave., across from St. Nicholas Church. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Rice is a residential treatment center and school for kids between the ages of 8 and 15 who are experiencing severe emotional, behavioral or mental health needs. Garcia runs the residential side of things, while District 65 hires the teachers and staff who manage every school day for the kids. Chicago nonprofit Children’s Home and Aid used to oversee the daily operations of Rice, but it handed over that job to LYDIA Home Association just a few months ago.

The center has beds for up to 50 children, according to Garcia, but the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services currently contracts the center to provide residential care for up to 36 kids. Oftentimes, Rice’s main goal is to help children grow and develop to a point where they can return home to their parents, a foster family or a relative.

As of early December, Rice had 25 students in its care from all over the state – near St. Louis, Springfield, Peoria, Rockford, Rock Island and Waukegan.

Around the holidays, Rice always gets a lot of donations it can use to give Christmas presents to the kids, Garcia said. But year-round, the most important resources the kids need are connections to other people outside Rice who can help them socialize and just feel normal for a few hours, she said.

“If kids don’t have connections to their family, they need somebody who will stick with them throughout their life,” said Garcia, who is also a licensed social worker and family therapist. “Can you imagine growing up, and the only people in your life are paid to be? It’s horrible. It’s really bad for the kids, so mentoring can be very impactful for this population.”

Federal laws also strictly regulate Rice’s daily operations and the lengths of stay for each child. Kids under 12 can only receive authorization for a renewable six-month stay, while anyone 12 and up can get approval for a 12-month stay.

But even when some kids have made significant progress in their social-emotional wellness and behavior, the state sometimes cannot find a foster family or a new placement for the child. One girl has been at Rice for three straight years, for example.

Plus, the pandemic has had an adverse effect on the kids because they were stuck in their rooms on-site doing online learning for a year, and fewer mentors and volunteer organizations have come out to interact over the last few years, according to Garcia. Rice is always looking for groups to stop by for an hour or two at a time to run art therapy workshops, exercise classes, tutoring sessions and more.

Before Covid-19 hit in March of 2020, for instance, a group of New Trier Township High School students would come tutor the kids every Thursday night, which was “something that our kids always looked forward to,” Garcia said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of our kids have developed an internal working model, to use therapy language, that they’re not worth it, that people don’t care, that if people get to know them, then they get rejected and abandoned. And unfortunately, that’s often based in the reality of what’s actually happened to them,” Garcia said. “But if somebody shows up and actually gets to know them, and then comes back and helps them build that positive self image, it’s priceless. There’s nothing you can do to replace that. There’s nothing I can do or say that will matter as much to these kids as what their mentor does or says.”

If you’re interested in donating supplies or becoming a mentor for a child at Rice, please reach out to Elissa Garcia at egarcia@lydiahome.org.

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Thank you for the report! I’ve lived very close to the center and was curious about it. The people who work there are saints. I hope these children are able to find stability and happiness.