AUBURN — More than one year after receiving a state grant to support what was then an $880,000 expansion, the E. John Gavras Center is advancing a much larger capital project that will provide a new look to the facility's exterior and increase its student capacity. 

The $1.5 million project will include elements of the initial plan — improving classrooms, replacing the 30-year-old playground and updating equipment. But the capital campaign will also involve upgrading the center's appearance and branding. 

Plans for the capital campaign began after the Gavras Center received a $176,249 grant from the state in 2016. The center applied for funding through the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council, which endorsed the proposal as one of its priority projects. 

The center consulted with Matt Chadderdon, principal of BlueWater Strategic Communications and a member of the capital campaign's steering committee. Chadderdon and his team "went through the entire building," recalled Danielle Ambrose, the center's CEO and executive director. They talked to parents, staff members and even outside vendors to get their opinions on how to improve the setting. 

One of the school's unique features, according to Chadderdon, is that it combines its general student population and children with special needs. Gavras now has 78 students. Once the project is completed, it will have the capacity for up to 128 students. 

Increasing that capacity is important, especially after Neighborhood House closed in 2016. Neighborhood House, a day-care facility, shut down after serving the Auburn area for more than 100 years. 

Stakeholders, including the Allyn Foundation, the Emerson Foundation and Cayuga County officials, worked with Gavras to develop a plan on how to address the county's child care needs. The capital campaign is the result of that collaboration. 

The $1.5 million project will allow Gavras to renovate classrooms and therapy spaces, create a state-of-the-art motor skills center and replace the playground. Four classrooms will be added and the center will create a "wrap around" daycare service preschool children. A new lobby will greet students and parents as they enter the facility. 

On the outside, the center's landscaping will be improved so that the building is more visible from North Street and the front of the structure will receive a makeover with new signage. 

"This is a building, but it's more than that," Chadderdon said. "It's a huge resource in this community." 

The project will complement the center's existing services. Ambrose said over the last decade there has been an increased number of children at the center who have autism or related disorders. The facility currently has two classrooms with children who are nonverbal. 

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With nonverbal children, communication is a challenge. But one way the center has addressed that problem is with the use of technology. Each classroom is equipped with iPads that allow the students to communicate with their teachers and therapists. 

"The technology becomes that link to them so that they communicate to us so that they can break that barrier," said Ken Ward, the center's principal of education services.

The use of technology is an important tool outside the classroom. Ambrose said parents have remarked about how utilizing iPads or similar technological devices have helped improve communication at home. 

But the technology isn't cheap. The center applied for a grant to fund the purchase of 30 new iPads. The Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation, named for the Syracuse men's basketball coach and his wife, provided a grant that enabled the center to buy two new smart boards. 

The center's leadership agrees that the support from central New York has been vital to its success. Ambrose noted that the Allyn Foundation played a major role in the facility's expansion in 1994. And the Emerson Foudnation has been a longtime supporter of the facility. 

Other businesses and organizations have helped, too. Chadderdon mentioned Johnston, Lowe's, Walmart and Wegmans as local businesses that have been supportive. Nucor Steel in Auburn is assisting with the center's playground project. The company is providing in-kind services and employees will help build the new playground. 

"For us, it's a big construction project," Chadderdon said of the playground. "They do those all the time." 

With the plans in place, the Gavras Center is now focused on ensuring it has the financial resources to fund the project. 

The fundraising effort will begin Wednesday with the center's Legacy of Caring Dinner at the Holiday Inn in Auburn. The event will be headlined by Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. 

Tickets for the dinner are sold out. There were about 350 tickets sold for the dinner. For an additional cost, Gavras offered some attendees an opportunity for a VIP gathering with Kelly. 

"(The dinner) is huge to support the project," Ambrose said. "The community that we live in, they are amazing and supportive of what we do whenever we have done anything." 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.