By Bernie Schmitt
The new 1972 Community Center, set to open this month in Vincennes, is hoped to bring people together.
“This is a place where people with disabilities and members of the community can enjoy time together,” said Mike Carney, the executive director of the Knox County Association for Retarded Citizens. “This is a place where people with disabilities are first.”
Located at 711 Old Wheatland Road, 1972 is the former location of KCARC’s Dove Manufacturing Plant 2, where employees made cold-weather polypropylene undershirts for the U.S. military. It has been transformed into a multi-faceted recreational facility for everyone.
“People with disabilities, their families, and interested members of the public can come in for wholesome fun, entertainment, or just to relax and talk over a cup of coffee,” Carney said. “There will be lots of different things for people. Something for everyone.”
The 35,000-square-foot facility includes a full-size basketball court, a multi-purpose room that features a colorfully painted 1972 Volkswagen bus and a lighted cave area — and will be used for laser tag, and a full kitchen that will prepare meals for KCARC’s Baker Center employees and the Civitan Children’s Center, along with a 130-seat dining area. There will be an arts and crafts studio that includes a pottery wheel and kiln, a computer gaming room with virtual reality technology, a spa and more.
“We’ll even have human foosball,” Carney said.
The former factory building has gotten a $2.39 million makeover, transforming the building into a bright, welcoming entertainment center. That price does not include thousands more spent on equipment for the facility. All of it, Carney said, is paid for.
“All the money KCARC makes goes back into helping people with disabilities,” he said. “That’s what being a non-profit organization is about.”
After spending his career establishing group homes, creating and finding jobs for people with disabilities and others, and integrating people with disabilities into the wider Knox County community, Carney said he had a feeling that KCARC “wasn’t getting the job done.”
“I had this nagging thought that we could do better,” he said. “But what? Surely, there’s something.”
Carney arrived to help establish KCARC in 1972, when there were no opportunities or help for people with disabilities. Over the years he, its board, and its employees have built an organization that has, through its support and services, helped to bring dignity and respect to people otherwise forgotten.
“When I came here there was no manufacturing, no residential opportunities, nothing,” he said. “All we had was an idea.”
Over the years, hundreds have benefited from the services provided by KCARC. Photographs taken over the years, as well as a number of newspaper articles, are a testament to the accomplishments that have taken place since 1972. These images are displayed along a wall of the gymnasium area — as long as the entire length of the basketball court — and chronicle the changes that have taken place. It’s the first thing one sees when entering the 1972 facility.
“When thinking about a name for this I thought back to when I first started,” Carney said. “Back then we were focused on a beginning. I wanted to tie this to our beginning, and ‘1972’ seemed appropriate for us starting another new beginning.”
The 1972 community center will provide people with disabilities even more opportunity to socialize with the broader public, and for the public to do the same. This will happen in varying degrees, Carney said, and it is the most important aspect of having such a facility.
“It’s about people in our community reaching out to other members of the community,” he said. “I want the engagement to be no different than anyone else getting together to socialize. For instance, I want people to see Rhonda as Rhonda, not as Rhonda, a disabled person.”
There has been a dramatic change in the Knox County community regarding citizens’ attitudes about people with disabilities, and KCARC has been instrumental in creating that change. He sees the 1972 Community Center as another positive effort in that regard.
“Years ago, rarely would you see people with disabilities at a basketball game, having a meal at a restaurant, or shopping at the grocery store,” Carney said. “Those places were off limits for our folks. Today, all of that is happening in our community. I hope all of that will be enhanced, increased and elevated because of 1972.”
In addition to providing employment opportunities within its own organization, KCARC provides programs that help individuals gain employment elsewhere in the community. The organization works with 40 different businesses in Vincennes to place people with disabilities with various employers.
“The question is, are people happy with what we’re doing?” Carney asks.
Not only are businesses satisfied, but KCARC clients are happy, too. They are a part of the broader community, something Carney and others at the local organization have been working on for years.
The 1972 Community Center will have an open house from 1 -5 p.m. on Nov. 12. The facility will open on the following Monday. While regular hours have yet to be finalized, it will likely open later in the morning and be open in the afternoons and early evenings, when Carney believes most will visit.
“I just want people to get to know our people,” he said. “People with disabilities are just like us — they get grouchy if they are ill, they are happy, sad, and have the same emotions and feelings as us. We are more alike than we are different.”