Think of all the learning opportunities there are on a first-timer’s trip to the grocery store. How do you pay for the food? How do you compare prices or judge the food’s nutritional value? What do you want to eat?

Those are questions some kids under the care of the Goldie Floberg are dealing with for the first time.

The center serves children and adults with development disabilities, most with some form of autism.

Floberg Center leader Dan Pennell has retired just as the agency is nearly completion of its largest endeavor in the last two decades — moving children who had lived in one large center on Rockton Road into several smaller group homes in neighborhoods throughout the Rockford area.

“Here we have a full-service kitchen, where food deliveries come in and the staff prepares all the food,” said John Pingo, chief executive officer. “But, in a group home you’re going out to the grocery store. Think of all the learning opportunities that provides. How do you keep up your house? How do you take care of the chores that a person needs to take care of to become as independent as possible? How are you going to plan the activities you’ll do throughout the day?”

Leaders at the Floberg Center have been working toward a group home structure for 20 years, but had been delayed by funding.

Pennell, chief executive officer for the past 38 years, retired at the beginning of this month. Pennell will stay on as a consultant until the group home project is complete in September.

When it’s finished, the Floberg Center will house the children in 12 group homes, with four kids in each home. Six of the group homes are now operational.

There, the children are more integrated into the community than they had been at the center. Outings to parks and to stores are simpler to organize. The children are also taking ownership of their belongings, which is difficult in a large center with 55 or 56 other children, Pennell said.

“What we’re seeing is that, collectively, they’re looking at it like ‘this is our house,’ ‘these are my friends,’ ‘these are my things,’” Pennell said. “Behavior issues will always occur, but they’re less severe than before and are continually going down as long as a person is in a home.”

Floberg staff are already plotting their next task: finding gainful employment for the people they serve, Pingo said.

“Over the next year, we’ll be trying to make sure the people we serve have real good choices for what they want to do during their day,” Pingo said.

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