MOUNT LAUREL — “This is something that’s always been just a dream,” Bancroft CEO and President Toni Pergolin said. And now it isn’t.
On Monday, that dream, which had been in the works for about a decade, came true when the nonprofit officially opened its 165,000-square-foot complex on Walton Avenue for children with special needs, particularly autism.
“We stand here today in this spectacular facility because we never quit,” Pergolin said. “Today is the first day in the new century for Bancroft. Today is a new day for children with autism.”
At the unveiling ceremony, local and state officials praised the school for its efforts and also welcomed it to Burlington County.
Troy Singleton, the state senator-elect from the 7th District, which includes Mount Laurel, said he learned about Bancroft a few years ago when he toured its Haddonfield school.
“My life was touched by walking around that facility,” he said.
Singleton recalled telling his staff, “We have to do anything and everything we can to help this fine facility.”
The complex includes the Bancroft School, which instructs about 265 students with autism as well as intellectual and developmental disabilities; campus residences for 44 students; and the specialized Lindens Neurobehavioral Program, for up to 30 students with severe autism.
When Bancroft began to outgrow its 20-acre location in Haddonfield, it looked for a larger home and found it in Mount Laurel, building on about 34 of 80 acres that it owns, said Dennis Morgan, senior vice president of children’s services.
“We have the ability now to serve children the way that they should and are entitled to be served — with dignity, with space,” Morgan said. “We anticipate that this space is going to help us significantly reduce some of the behavioral challenges that we face.”
The school embarked on a $12 million campaign goal to fund the project. Over $11 million in donations was received, Pergolin said.
The main school building — which serves students from about age 6 to 21, all with varying degrees of disabilities — includes traditional classrooms with a variety of seats to fit students’ needs, an activity center, aquatic center, teaching kitchens, outdoor and indoor play areas, and gymnasium.
“I think that we have yet to realize the untapped potential of this campus,” Morgan said.
“On our current site, we have the gymnasium that acts as a cafeteria, that acts as a training facility. And on this campus, we have all of those things distinct and separate,” he said. “We have a pool, an aquatic center for children, and our children are just naturally attracted to water. And on this campus, we will have the opportunity to incorporate that into the design of the school day. The pool is not your typical pool. It’s designed to accommodate the unique needs of children with autism.”
Older “transition” students will have the opportunity to work at the campus’ mini-coffee shop and store, put together through a partnership with Wawa and the Ravitz Family Markets. This initiative is designed to help students transition from their residency at Bancroft to a more independent life.
The larger campus also allowed Bancroft to pay more attention to details. For example, each bathroom has separate faucets so that students will learn how to use sinks with knobs and handles, and that also dispense water automatically.
“We are prepared to provide these with more services than ever before,” Pergolin said.
The campus residences feature single bedrooms with a common living area and dining room. A few older students will live in the two-story home to help them get used to living in different settings.
The campus will employ about 530 people, according to Morgan.
About 40 percent of the students live either on campus or in nearby group homes.
Tammy Snyder-Murphy, the wife of Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, praised the new facility.
“This is a great day for Burlington County and New Jersey,” she said. “You actually have been miracle workers.”
The Bancroft School has served children for over 130 years. It has 16 locations in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, including Bancroft at Burlington, which serves students over age 21.
Students will continue to attend classes at the Haddonfield campus through this week. During winter break, the staff will finish transporting materials to the new campus and set things up before students officially return on Jan. 3.