URBANA, Ill. – A fabric art piece hangs in the atrium of Christopher Hall, where students, faculty, and guests pass daily. It visually represents the mission and impact of the building and its family-centered programs from the last decade: a coming together.
Doris Kelley Christopher Hall, the building’s full name, sits just at the east edge of the University of Illinois campus and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It is home to the Family Resiliency Center and a unique combination of research, education, and outreach centered on helping families thrive under challenging conditions. It has been a place for both the campus and the community to find solutions to the problems families face.
“I believe in some ways the fabric art that you see on the wall is a reflection not only of a piece of beautiful artwork, but the notion of coming together, of many different colors and spaces and shapes and forms intertwined,” says Connie Shapiro, a former director of the FRC.
A Visit from Doris
The vision for a new space began in the early 2000s when Doris Kelley Christopher, founder and chairman of the Pampered Chef, Ltd. and an Illinois graduate, returned to campus to observe programs related to family and food in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. In 2000, Christopher and the Pampered Chef assisted in establishing the Family Resiliency Program in the Department of Human and Community Development, recently renamed the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
After touring a windowless observation lab in the basement of one building where researchers observed families from a furnace room, Christopher recalls, “I was intrigued by the concept of family interactions, and amazed to see the work these researchers were doing considering the crudeness of the setup. But it wasn’t really a place where a family would have an interaction. And the idea came to me that this was work that deserved a better place. It deserved a more state-of-the-art facility.
“I mentioned it to the folks in the College of ACES, and eventually we came up with the idea of a state-of-the-art facility that would house classrooms, that would pull together the faculty, who were spread out all over the campus, so they could collaborate more easily.”
On her tour that day, Christopher observed Professor Laurie Kramer’s research on children and sibling relationships. “I brought Doris down to my lab and I was so proud and so excited to tell her about the work I was doing,” Kramer says. “She was very attentive and said it was great work.”
After the lab visit, both Shapiro and Diane Marlin, a former coordinator of the Family Resiliency Program, recall Christopher announcing, “We have got to get Laurie’s research out of the basement!”
Strengthening families is what excited Christopher, and what, Kramer says, connected her to the Human and Community Development department. “Doris saw the experience of families being around the table at mealtimes as formative in child development and the glue that helped families remain cohesive and strong over time.
“Doris’ interests paralleled what the research in the department was trying to accomplish.”
With a commitment of funding from Christopher, the conversation began about a new building.
At the top of the list was creating a place that felt like home.
“We wanted to do research in a home-like setting,” Marlin recalls. “Many of the studies this department does involves going into people’s homes to observe them interacting. But we thought it would be wonderful to have a research home on campus where we could conduct research with families in a home-like setting. We wanted it to be state-of-the-art, and we wanted space for classrooms, places for faculty and students to interact, and to make it available for the community.”
“The location of the building was also very important. This corner of Lincoln Avenue and Nevada Street is like the gateway to the eastern edge of campus. We wanted it to be accessible to the community for various community functions,” she adds.
Crews broke ground on an empty tract of land in late 2004.
From Vision to Reality
In 2006, the new Christopher Hall became home to the FRC and Kramer was named as its first director.
Some of the first projects and programs to benefit from the new building included Kramer’s sibling relationships research, a siblings group for The Autism Program, and other community groups such as parent support groups.
Kramer remarks how intentional each component of the building design was in order make the building not only useful for research, but accessible to the public. “We have a parking lot, when we could have had a bigger building, probably. And it’s on the bus line.”
Even the colors of bricks were intentionally chosen to look more like a home, and less like the institutional buildings on campus.
“It’s a beautiful building and I still think it’s unique,” Marlin says.
Today, the building’s “research home” features a living room, dining room, and fully functional kitchen. The research home, slightly separate from the rest of the building, is a unique observational facility, equipped with seven unobtrusive video cameras and microphones that allow for 360-degree recording of family, couple, and group interactions. A control room houses recording equipment, allowing for different views of the scene and close-up recording.
“The research home has been a game changer in terms of having a space to see what families are really doing with each other, without them feeling like they are in an artificial situation,” Kramer says.
Classrooms, project rooms, and a studio give students and researchers spaces to learn and collaborate. The atrium is often used as the site for celebrations by the HDFS department as well as by other units on campus.
Highlighting the importance of community outreach, Christopher Hall is also home to The Autism Program’s resource room. The program, through the HDFS department and the Department of Special Education at U of I, offers the community free education and training materials, and staff consultations.
Christopher Hall’s Impact
Over the last 10 years and today, the FRC continues to help families by researching issues such as childhood obesity and health with the STRONG Kids program, or looking at the connections between food and family life with initiatives such as the Food and Family Program.
Christopher says the programs within the FRC are “creating tools that all families need to be successful. And it’s so important for me when I see a family sitting around a table, like the one in our research home here, enjoying food and conversation and learning about each other. Ultimately, this building is the coming together of people doing research about what makes families strong. This is a place where research and data collection is accomplished every day that can in turn be put into programs and teachings that can help families everywhere, not just in Illinois, not just in the local community, but all across the country and beyond. That’s the lasting impact of this facility.”
Bob Hughes, a former HDFS department head, says that those who were involved in the planning of Christopher Hall could not have known all the ways this building could have been used over the last decade.
“There’s always been the desire to have faculty from across campus come interact in that space and take advantage of the specific things in the building itself. I think the idea was to have all these people interacting in the same physical space and then hope that in those interactions people would do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise, or have conversations they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
U of I Extension specialist Angela Wiley uses the space to create training materials for childcare workers and to do cooking demonstrations and taste testing with families in the Abriendo Camino research project.
“This building has become a place of comfort, a place of familiarity, a place where research participants and students can develop relationships with us, with graduate students. The welcoming features of this building become a part of their experience,” she says.
Current FRC director Barbara Fiese says the environment of the building will keep allowing for important research on strengthening families. “Although we’ve accomplished a lot of great work, the work isn't done, that’s for sure. But we’re on the right trajectory. And you know, there are so many times where I walk through the building and think that Doris would be so happy because it’s such a vibrant place and so many great things are happening here.”
For more information about the Family Resiliency Center, visit http://familyresiliency.illinois.edu/.
The fabric art in the Christopher Hall atrium is titled, “Serendipity,” and was created by Champaign artist Mary MacDonald.