For most of its 51 years, the Lexington Hearing & Speech Center occupied three small houses on North Ashland Avenue. On Tuesday, it moved to new quarters, the former Julia R. Ewan Elementary School building on Henry Clay Boulevard.
Even as staffers unpacked boxes, they reacted with glee at the 70,000 square feet of space, including wide hallways, spacious classrooms with large windows, a gymnasium and a cafeteria.
"It already feels like home," speech program director Shelby Rutledge said.
Last year, the center worked with 1,200 children from 66 Kentucky counties.
Being able to buy the Julia R. Ewan building was a dream come true for the center, said King Offutt, chairman of the center's board. "We couldn't stay where we were. We were busting at the seams and turning kids away. And we wanted to stay in the same part of town."
In a more robust economy, "We probably couldn't have afforded this building," Offutt said. "A developer would have come in and bought it and turned it into condominiums."
The center bought the former public school building in 2010 for $1.6 million. The center then made $550,000 worth of renovations and added $200,000 worth of equipment.
For half a century, the Hearing & Speech Center has worked with children from newborns to age 7 who have hearing, speech and language impairments. The center teaches the children to listen and talk while also offering therapy and family support.
The center also operates a day-care facility.
The focus is on early intervention, the earlier the better, said executive director Marcey Ansley. "Children as young as 1 month can be fitted with hearing aids," she said.
The center does not teach sign language as a way for children to communicate. That's a major between it and the state-funded Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville, where children are taught sign language, finger spelling and lip reading.
"We are a different option — a private, non-profit school using an oral approach to teaching deaf youngsters to listen and speak," Ansley said.
The center isn't limited to youngsters who are hard of hearing. It has children who can hear but whose parents choose to enroll them in a language-enriched program.
Typically, children from the center can be mainstreamed into kindergarten "on par with their peers," Ansley said.
The center partners with the University of Kentucky pediatric cochlear-implant team in working with children after they receive implants. "When a child gets a cochlear implant, they have no idea what they are hearing and how to turn that into speech," Ansley said.
With the luxury of more room, the center is starting a full-day kindergarten, a therapeutic curriculum for autistic preschoolers and a parents' day out program. Next summer, there will be an expanded summer camp for school-age children.
Also, with the addition of ramps, an elevator and the retrofitting of bathrooms, the center can now serve children with multiple disabilities. "That is huge for us," Offutt said during a tour of the building Tuesday.
Julia R. Ewan closed as a Fayette County elementary school in 2008 and was later sold at auction. Businessman Bill Meade bought it for $1.225 million.
Vineyard Community Church signed a contract last year to buy the Ewan property for $1.5 million, contingent on securing financing and getting a conditional-use permit from the Urban County Government to operate a church there.
The church ran into opposition from neighbors who complained about insufficient parking for the growing congregation, noise and the church's outreach programs to the poor. Vineyard eventually dropped its plans and moved to a building on Eastland Parkway.