Community Foundation of Central Illinois provides LiteGait system to Easterseals Central Illinois

Learning to walk is a fundamental milestone for all children.  Some children, however, need some additional help reaching this milestone.  Easterseals’ LiteGait program is designed to help children learn (or re-learn) to walk more easily, faster, and with more confidence.   The LiteGait system addresses the needs of children learning or re-learning to walk through a specialized body-weight support system that provides a safe, supported environment where children can learn (or relearn, in the case of injury or surgery) basic walking skills.  Thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois in the amount of $12,500, we can purchase this system to assist the children in Central Illinois in reaching this important milestone.

Briar uses the LiteGait with his Physical Therapist, Shannon.

It uses a mechanical system and a harness to support the individual and control balance and posture over a treadmill or over the ground. Using the LiteGait over a treadmill allows clients to practice walking over an “endless walkway”. The therapist doesn’t have to worry about having to stop a child’s walking because they came to the end of a hallway and now have to turn around or worry about balance.

Using the harness, the child is totally supported, so there is no risk of falling. The LiteGait provides therapists with an extra set of hands during therapy sessions. In this way, the therapist can assist with the child’s leg movement over a longer distance and for a longer period of time.

Zoey and Shannon use the LiteGait

The child gets to practice walking in a way that cannot be done without this support. Essentially, they can walk farther and faster when supported over the treadmill than they can otherwise. This helps children progress to walking with a walker, or alone if possible, recover from surgery or injury, or build endurance. It can also improve their gait patterns, so they can walk with better balance and control. Medical research supports the use of body weight-supported gait training for children with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and children and adults with various conditions and disabilities.

Gretchen Meyer, Physical Therapist at Easterseals Central Illinois, Steve Thompson, CEO of Easterseals Central Illinois and Sarah Fletcher
   Director of Grants and Community Initiative, Community Foundation of Central Illinois

Meet Melissa!

On Wednesday, June 1st it was announced that Melissa Riddle would be assuming the role of President of Easterseals Central Illinois. Steve Thompson will be retiring from his 42-year career with Easterseals at the end of August 2022.

Melissa joined the Easterseals Central Illinois team in 2021 as the Chief Operating Officer and quickly put her 17 years of nonprofit/healthcare experience to work! She sat down with us yesterday to answer a few questions to help our extended Easterseals family (all of you) get to know her a little better.

Hometown:   Metamora Community, where I currently reside today.

Family:   Tony (husband), Lauren (daughter), and Tyler (son).

Pets:  2 Labrador Retrievers

Favorite sports teams:  Chicago Cubs

Favorite weekend activity:   Kids Baseball and Softball games

Alma Mater: Goshen College

Tell us about your career leading up to Easterseals:

I began my career with McGladrey & Pullen, LLP with a focus on auditing. One of my clients was The Children’s Home Association of Illinois. I had the chance to join their team as the Chief Financial Officer. Over the next 17 years, I was able to expand my experience as the President and Chief Financial Officer into the day-to-day operations including Human Resources, Information Technology, Quality Improvement, Facilities, and the overall mission of the organization.   I enjoyed being a part of the statewide Child Welfare Advisory Committee, advocating for kids and families in the state of Illinois.

What is your favorite thing about working at Easterseals?

Obviously, the mission of Easterseals is incredible. Getting to be a part of this great work is so humbling.  One of my favorite things is the team of dedicated, talented professionals that make up the Easterseals Central Illinois staff. Every single individual that works for this organization shows up each day wanting to make a positive impact on the communities we serve. 

Easterseals believes every child deserves the best; what does ‘the best’ mean to you?

My background is in business operations. So to me, means our families deserve the best from start to finish. Our families have said that they receive the best in therapy, at school, and at camp. But ‘The best’ also means clear communication about insurance, billing, scheduling, and access to services. ‘The best’ means we work alongside families throughout the entire process at Easterseals to be their partner and advocate. Being the best means constantly listening and learning from our families.

What does the future hold for Easterseals?

For the last 100 years, Easterseals has been a solid foundation for families in our community. Thanks to the work of Steve Thompson and the leadership teams over the previous few decades, we are entering an exciting time for Easterseals.

When I think about the future, I think about sustainability and staying the course. Easterseals Central Illinois started providing services at a once-a-week clinic in a storefront over 100 years ago. This year we are opening a new facility in Bloomington with the Bloomington-Normal YMCA, renovating our Peoria Service Center, and expanding access into rural communities with telehealth. Timber Pointe Outdoor Center is leading the state in inclusive recreation opportunities, and the Easterseals Learning Academy is making an impact across 15 school districts. Our partnership with Child and Family Services in 11 counties in Central Illinois is improving access to vital early intervention services. Our impact is broad, and we are committed to sustaining that impact. We are committed to ensuring every child is 100% included and 100% empowered because that is what they deserve, it is what their families deserve, and it is what our communities deserve.

Steve Thompson Announces Retirement as he Celebrates 42 years with Easterseals Central Illinois

June 1 2022 (Peoria, IL)- After 42 years of dedicated service, President and CEO of Easterseals Central Illinois, Steve Thompson, has announced his plans to retire effective August 31, 2022.   Effective immediately, Melissa S. Riddle will step into the role of President assuming responsibility for all aspects of Easterseals operations.  To support the transition, Steve Thompson will continue in his role as CEO through the end of August. 

“It has been a remarkable privilege to be a part of an organization focused on ensuring that every child is given the opportunity to reach their full potential. I have been honored to work alongside our dedicated staff, tireless volunteers and an extraordinary Board of Directors.”

Steve Thompson

Steve Thompson began his career at Easterseals in 1981 and has served as President and CEO since 1986. During his first year, the organization served 875 individuals. In 2021, Easterseals Central Illinois served more than 5,000 families across its six locations. Thompson has been  widely recognized as an exemplary leader and known for consistently making the needs of children with disabilities and their families his first priority.  His life’s work, and that of his wife Morene, has been driven by a steadfast belief that every child deserves the best. 

“I am proud of the positive impact Easterseals has had in the lives of children and families in Central Illinois for the past 103 years.  Going forward, Easterseals is committed to sustaining and growing that impact,” shared Steve Thompson. “During the past year, Melissa Riddle has demonstrated a passionate sense of purpose and the skills to advance our mission.  I’m confident that Easterseals will thrive under her operational expertise and leadership.”

Melissa Riddle joined the executive leadership team at Easterseals in 2021 as Chief Operating Officer. Prior to that, Melissa served as President and Chief Financial Officer of the Children’s Home Association of Illinois. During her 17 years with Children’s Home, she gained extensive knowledge in nonprofit management and the delivery of services for children and youth.   

 “I am grateful to so many children and families who have shown me that the “best” is not a destination but a never-ending pursuit. In this spirit, I know that the best is yet to come for Easterseals Central Illinois. With an excellent staff, high-quality programs, exemplary boards, generous donors, committed volunteers, and a strong endowment, Easterseals will continue to be recognized as a trusted and caring organization far into the future.”     

Steve Thompson

Better Speech & Hearing Month

May is better speech and hearing month. Speech-Language therapy has been a staple of Easterseals Central Illinois since we opened in 1919. Over the last century, we have seen so many milestone moments and watched thousands of children learn to communicate their wants and needs in a variety of ways.

Meet some of our current kiddos!

Reagan brings her bright smile and infectious laugh to Easterseals for Speech therapy with Molly! Reagan is currently focusing on receptive language during speech. She also is learning to communicate by using an AAC device, sign language, and speaking verbally.  Her mom shares “Molly has been amazing helping us journey through the world of speech and what all that entails. Whether it be the AAC device or learning a new sign, she always has a tremendous amount of patience and a smiling face. We love Molly!!! “

Reece loves to use his communication skills to make friends! He has been using his voice to share his love of Easterseals and Timber Pointe Outdoor Center.

Kenzi is working hard in Speech Therapy with Taylor! She is making progress every day.

Closing out this post we have our friend Brooks! Brooks is working hard on his goals in Speech Therapy, including singing along with songs! See the adorable video his mom posted below.

Bloomington-Normal YMCA & Easterseals Central Illinois Facility Update

We are so excited to be nearing completion on the Bloomington-Normal YMCA facility in just a few months! This building includes our new Easterseals Central Illinois home in Bloomington-Normal. Check out this amazing flythrough video created by the YMCA to get to know the space a little better.

Our partners PJ Hoer Inc. Also shared this video on their youtube page

Our friends at WMBD news also shared a news story featuring our very own Ambassador Reece and his mom Dezi!

A few months later WMBD returned with President Kinzy of Illinois State University for another tour

Why We Rally: CEFCU

We asked our partners at CEFCU why they #Rally4Easterseals here is what they shared:

At CEFCU, helping people is more than a nice idea – it’s the reason we’re in business. We were founded on the principle of “People Helping People”, which means we not only are committed to members’ financial well-being, but also to supporting the areas where CEFCU members live and work. That’s why we’re proud to RALLY with Easterseals – an amazing non-profit that works tirelessly to help the children living in central IL with development delays, disabilities, and other special needs. By partnering with organizations like Easterseals who are doing good in our communities, we ensure that we are living our values by helping to make a lasting difference in the areas we serve.

We #Rally4Easterseals at CEFCU year-round by sponsoring many of their events, volunteering our time, sharing our resources, and giving back to their mission. We are thankful for our partnership and look forward to supporting them for years to come!

Thank you, CEFCU!

The Autism Collective Poised for Record Growth  

Organization announces new Executive Director and Collaborator

The Autism Collective Board of Directors, along with founding members Easterseals Central Illinois and OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois, are pleased to announce the appointment of Kelly Nimtz-Rusch as Executive Director of the organization. Additionally, the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria (UICOMP) is joining The Autism Collective as an official collaborator.

The Autism Collective launched in 2019 with a mission to end the isolation of autism by uniting experts and connecting families. Since then, the organization has helped 910 individuals across the state of Illinois navigate the complex web of services available for children and adults with autism.

The Autism Collective unites a broad spectrum of expertise to support families. As Executive Director, Kelly Nimtz-Rusch will bring more than 20 years of clinical expertise to the organization.

Nimtz-Rusch joins The Autism Collective from OSF HealthCare where she began her career as a pediatric nurse at OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois. She served in a number of leadership roles at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center before becoming the Vice President of Nursing and Clinical Education for the OSF HealthCare Ministry. In addition to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Saint Francis College of Nursing, Nimtz-Rusch has a doctor of nursing practice from American Sentinel University, in Aurora, CO.  She brings a wealth of experience in new program development, innovative solution design work, and quality improvement in clinical practice to The Autism Collective.

The Autism Collective is meeting a vital need for our community and across the state. I am so excited to be a part of this organization, bringing support to individuals and amplifying their voices.

Kelly Nimtz- Rusch, Executive Director of The Autism Collective

The addition of the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria as a collaborator will give The Autism Collective expanded access and growth opportunities into the medical field as it continues its mission of uniting experts to end the isolation of autism. 

UICOMP is one of four campuses that makes up the nation’s largest public medical school. The school educates 265 medical students and trains more than 300 residents and fellows annually while engaging more than 1,700 faculty physicians, professionals, and staff. Wendy Burdo-Hartman, MD, will join The Autism Collective Board of Directors in April 2022 as the UICOMP representative.

It is an honor to be appointed to the Autism Collective Board. As a neurodevelopmental pediatrician, the needs of children on the autism spectrum and their families are significant and cannot be provided by one organization. By bringing together Easterseals Central Illinois, OSF Children’s Hospital of Illinois and the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, central Illinois is getting closer to meeting the needs of all children with autism spectrum disorder.

Dr.  Wendy Burdo-Hartman, Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.

Learn more about the Autism Collective at

CP Awareness Month Q & A with Molly Hogeboom

March is Cerebral Palsy (CP) awareness month. According to the CDC, CP is a group of disorders that affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. Symptoms of CP vary from person to person. CP is the most common motor disability in childhood. Read more from the CDC here.

Lucky for us, we have an expert at our disposal! Our Community Engagement Manager, Molly Hogeboom, has a diagnosis of CP and shares her perspective below.

  • What is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral Palsy is a congenital disorder of movement and muscle tone. The diagnosis often stems from a brain injury at or before birth. CP affects everyone differently. You meet one person with CP; you meet one person with CP. It can affect just your legs, muscles, your whole body, or as in my case, be only one side affected. For some, this may include impairments with communication also.

My CP affects a lot of my dexterity; in a sense, my right hand and arm are mildly paralyzed. My right leg is also weak, and my gait is different from an able-bodied person’s.

  • How has this diagnosis impacted you/your family

Ya know. My cp impacts me daily, but I have learned to navigate its challenges, one literal step at a time. I do not let my disability hold me back. Resources and therapy set a strong foundation for me to utilize all of my abilities. I don’t look at things with an “I can’t do that” attitude, but rather, “how can I do that?”. The answer to that question may be, getting creative… like using my mouth to paint my fingernails. Making multiple trips when getting my lunch ( Because I can’t carry my drink and plate simultaneously) or, most importantly….asking for help when I need it. That is part of doing things with a disability. I may not physically be doing it, but acknowledging and advocating that I need help is, in fact, doing it. I have had a rock star support system from day 1 of diagnosis. My mom and dad, my therapy team, family, and friends. At times, my “right hand” is my amazing husband, Wes. We have two boys under three… so our hands are full quite a bit.

  • How can our community ensure kids with Cerebral Palsy are 100% empowered and 100% included?

I hope that the community would be willing to learn more about CP as a whole. That goes for all ages… As an adult, know how your workplace or places of hobbies or interests can be more accessible. Offer help if you see a mom that needs assistance opening a door for their son or daughter that uses a wheelchair. Or someone, like me, looks like they might be struggling to carry something. And when I say offer, that is what I mean. I love when people offer assistance vs. just assuming the help is wanted. If you are a parent, teach your kiddo about friends of all abilities and how we are unique in our own particular ways. Hey, I can even bring the Easterseals CEFCU ability awareness program to your school. Learn about inclusion, the fantastic organizations in our area that may serve people, young and old, with CP, and donate your time, talent, or treasure.

  • What do you want parents/kiddos with a CP diagnosis to know?

To Parents- Maybe your journey is just getting started…or you are in the middle of the ride… please know. You are everything to your kiddo.. no matter how old they are. You are the fiercest advocate biggest cheerleader…. Someone to wipe the tears and to celebrate progress with.

You are seen, loved, and know that those around you know you are doing the very best for your child. “You’re the engine that makes all things go, And you’re always in disguise — a hero.”

To kids with CP…. I would first say that reminder that they are not alone. I know firsthand that sometimes it is not always easy, but your CP makes you the star you are… Having CP only adds to your shine. Depending on where you are in life.. that might not always be easy to see. Still, I promise you in life, the possibilities are endless with the right team and support behind you. The obstacles you face might not be the easiest, but they are what make you, you! Embrace CP as a part of who you are, don’t be afraid to tell your friends and people around you how it affects you if you need to. As Abbey Curran once said. “I have Cerebral Palsy; Cerebral Palsy doesn’t have me .”I hope that statement sticks with you as much as it does for me.

Check out this video to learn more about Molly, her family, and their Easterseals journey.

Ambassador Update: Alex & Bennett

A little over two years ago, Wendell and Kathleen welcomed tiny twin boys named Alex and Bennett. Their family celebrates these boys as their ‘one in a million kids.’

Bennett loves to clap along to music, play peek-a-boo, and pop bubbles. He loves making faces at himself in the mirror and following along with his brother, playing beside him. Bennett has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

Alex loves to read books with anyone who will join him, splash in the water, and explore new surroundings. He loves to climb on a large box in the family living room. He has a diagnosis of Mosaic Down Syndrome.

Both boys have low muscle tone, meaning they do not have the strength that many children do early on. They receive physical therapy through Easterseals and build strength and endurance every day. They are reaching milestones like sitting, crawling, and walking.

Recently, Kathleen shared this message with the students of Limestone High School “Easterseals is a huge blessing to our family. And you are a blessing by raising funds to help our kids and many precious kiddos. So thank you. Thank you for fundraising for Easterseals. Thank you for taking the time to be a friend to us today.  Thank you for any time you take for any child or adult with special needs throughout your days. It will make your life richer too.”

“Teaching our children kindness and providing opportunities to be a friend to people with disabilities help them realize how much alike we all are! Also, the way we adults talk about others who are different from us impacts the next generation in greater ways than we may realize.”

Kathleen, Alex & Bennett’s Mom

Hear Kathleen’s full speech from the LCHS Easterseals Kickoff Assembly: