By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — If you’ve been near the back of the Northern Essex Community College campus and seen all the construction trucks, you might think the college is expanding.
That’s not the case — but a large educational project of another kind begun.
Opportunity Works Inc., a private, not-for-profit organization that helps adults with disabilities and their families, has broken ground for a 37,000-square-foot educational center.
The building will emerge from land behind the college and is slated to open next fall. It will include 12 classrooms offering a variety of integrated, multi-disciplinary services.
The organization helps disabled people learn daily life skills, such as hygiene, getting around the community and recreation. It also provides training in work skills and helps clients find jobs with local companies.
Dozens of supporters of the Opportunity Works mission gathered recently for a groundbreaking ceremony, which included remarks from Opportunity Works Executive Director Jane Harris-Fale, Mayor James Fiorentini, state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and Haverhill parent Diane Fasulo, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities.
Fasulo, whose adult son Dean attends Opportunity Works, said the new building will fill a vital need in the community.
“The need to support individuals with disabilities such as autism, Down Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury grows each year,” Fasulo said. “My admiration goes out to the Opportunity Works staff for their dedication. It’s a top-rate program and I am pleased to be part of it.
“This is like a dream come true,” she said. “The new facility in Haverhill is a great project, a great opportunity.”
More Haverhill residents are supported by Opportunity Works than any other city or town except Amesbury, agency officials said.
Harris-Fale, a lifelong Haverhill resident, explained the pressing need to expand with a new facility.
She said Opportunity Works has grown dramatically in the number of people served and the scope of programs provided.
“Our Haverhill site is at capacity, serving many people with more involved needs, which requires more space,” Harris-Fale said.
Two years ago, officials with the agency announced they had reached the maximum allowed capacity of clients at their Summer Street offices and were looking for a larger building. Because of the space problem, at least 10 Haverhill area clients had to travel daily to the agency’s Newburyport center.
Today, more than 200 people from across the Merrimack Valley and beyond take part in support programs the agency offers. Opportunity Works has maintained a satellite facility at 209R Summer St. in Haverhill for 14 years. The agency was founded in Newburyport in 1974.
In 2004, the Summer Street site had five staff members serving 19 people. The site now serves 42 people and has 15 staff members.
Harris-Fale said the expansion will allow the agency to serve nearly 100 people with 35 staff members by 2017.
“This major project makes me even prouder that Opportunity Works is recognized as one of the premier human service agencies in New England,” Harris-Fale said.
Fiorentini said he welcomes the new facility and is looking forward to the new jobs it will create during and after construction.
“Opportunity Works provides a much needed service to some of our residents and we appreciate the hard work that they do every day,” the mayor said.
In a prepared statement, state Rep. Brian Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the new building will “ensure Opportunity Works remains on the cutting edge of serving the growing numbers of our friends and neighbors who deserve our support every single day.
“The Commonwealth is grateful for nonprofit agencies like Opportunity Works that work so hard to fulfill that need,” Dempsey said. “Future partnership opportunities between the agency and the college will also be of tremendous mutual benefit to the city and the entire region.”
The general contractor is BWK Construction of Middleton. The $6.4 million building was designed by TMS Architects of Portsmouth, N.H.
Partial financing was arranged through the Institution for Savings and the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank, both of Newburyport. A $2 million capital campaign to complete funding for the project began in May. The community has already shown its support in myriad ways. In addition to major gifts from both lending institutions, pledges have been received from Pentucket Bank, Covanta Energy, Haverhill Bank and many other local businesses and people.
Donations in support of this project can be made online at www.opportunityworksinhaverhill.org.
For more information about Opportunity Works, visit www.opportunityworks.org. Visit on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/OpportunityWorks.