Ground is broken for the Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education on Nov. 8. Ron Chez, president of the Chez Family Foundation, is in the center. (Photo by Steve B. Brooks)

Honoring a responsibility to those who serve

Already a trailblazer in the field of improving access for its disabled students, the University of Illinois is taking that mission a step further.

The same university that had the first wheelchair-accessible fixed-route bus system, the first accessible university residence halls, and the first collegiate adapted sports and recreation program for students with disabilities broke ground Nov. 8 on a center dedicated to student veterans wounded during their military service.

The Chez Family Foundation Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education, located on the university’s Urbana-Champaign campus, will offer transitional residential accommodations for 12-14 veterans at a time, and non-residential services for up to 150 veterans and their families. The Chez Family Foundation has donated $6 million toward construction of the facility, which is expected to be completed and open to the fall class of 2015; another $4 million toward construction costs will be provided through Illinois Jobs Now!.

"Freedom is not a right," said Ron Chez, president of the Chez Foundation and a U.S. Army veteran. "We have a special responsibility to those who have served. There is no greater service than to be in the military and defend the country. Our responsibility – everybody here – is to do more on behalf of (veterans) who have demonstrated their service to America. This great effort, led by the University of Illinois, is a wonderful step in that direction."

The center will open its doors to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have suffered severe and multiple injuries while attending the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus. Residential and non-residential services offered will focus on health and life skills management; academic coaching, tutoring, and adaptive learning strategies; training in the use of adaptive technology; psychological counseling; rehabilitative services; counseling and outreach to spouses and children; and career counseling and employment services.

"What we will do here is empower student veterans to pursue their next rewarding job assignment and enable us all to benefit from the extraordinary contributions they will continue to make to our nation," said Tanya Gallagher, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences. "And, in the best of military traditions, even those with the most severe impairments will not be forgotten or left behind."

The center will serve another purpose. "Not only will we be providing a great service for those who have done so much for us and for freedom," Illinois Board of Trustees member Timothy Koritz said, "but also we will have a state-of-the-art facility to research long-term aspects of physical, intellectual and emotional assistance, and how to best provide these services for our special students."

U.S. Army veteran Eric Swenson – who received his undergraduate degree from the university and is now pursuing a master’s degree there – called the construction of the center a "profound gesture" on the part of the University of Illinois.

"(Veterans) aren’t as visible (on college campuses), and the needs aren’t as apparent, but that doesn’t mean that the needs aren’t there," Swenson said. "With this veterans center, I think that the university has really made excellent strides toward including us and taking advantage of the opportunities we present. Veterans... are coming back with a suite of skills and experiences that you just can’t expect any 18-year-old kid to have."

American Legion Past National Commander Marty Conatser, who lives just blocks from where the center will be located, attended the ground-breaking ceremony. "The University of Illinois has always been a leader in accessibility for handicapped and disabled students," Conatser said. "They have a vision for it. Hopefully this will become the model for many more of these on college campuses."

The university had reached out to the Legion via a conference call to garner the organization’s support for the center, but Conatser said the idea had been floating around for a few years.

"One of the business managers for the College of Applied Sciences talked to me about this probably five and a half years ago – about the concept of what they were trying to do, how they would identify people, that type of thing," Conatser said. "I think the reason they looked toward us for support is that The American Legion has the reputation of being the organization that stands with our veterans, and we stay focused on the important issues of veterans, and that’s what we’re about."

William Goodman, assistant dean for Administration and Technology in Illinois’ College of Applied Health Sciences, concurred with Conatser. "One way to fully utilize the center is to get the support and endorsement of The American Legion," he said. "The American Legion is one of the most recognizable and respected names when it comes to veterans, so having that seal of approval was very important to us."

Elizabeth Ambros, a former Navy Corpsman during Operation Iraqi Freedom and now a pre-med student, said the center represents a commitment to current and future student veterans at Illinois. "I am so proud to know that the University of Illinois has created this center for wounded veterans," she said. "Opening up this center is going to help those veterans get a first-class education at a first-class university. It’s a great gesture by the university and a great way to say thank you to those veterans."