APPLETON, Wis. — A $1 million gift is going to keep on giving in Appleton, Wis.

The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center celebrates its 20th anniversary on Nov. 25, 2022. Its milestone is being marked by a $1 million donation to upgrade the center’s accessibility services.

Being an accessible venue is something Fox Cities PAC already strives to do. The center offers accessible seating, parking, restrooms, doors and elevators.

In addition, Fox Cities PAC has assistive listening systems and hearing loop systems, which “enables people who have difficulty hearing to have far better reception than was previously possible.” Fox Cities PAC also provides open captioning for some shows and connects other shows to an app that offers captions and translations.

Fox Cities PAC also provides large print and Braille programs upon request, and has American Sign Language interpreters.

Maria Van Laanen, Fox Cities PAC’s president and CEO, said these services “ensure that people of all backgrounds and abilities can enjoy performances and experiences here… to the fullest.”

With the $1 million donation, Fox Cities PAC said it can do even more to accommodate the community.

“Technologies continue to evolve,” Van Laanen said. “We continue to be educated by our community of different services that are out there, different tools that will help make the facility more accessible, and help us better serve the community.”

Van Laanen said she has already decided to increase training for her staff and volunteers. One of the trainings, for example, will help them recognize if someone who has posttraumatic stress disorder is triggered by a show, if someone who is on the Autism spectrum is struggling or even if someone in memory care is having a difficult time.

“We will be able to recognize when someone is having an issue and quickly be ready to be part of the support system to make sure that person gets what they need, so that as quickly as possible they are able to recover,” she said. “And hopefully, [they] can still enjoy the rest of their time here at the center and enjoy the rest of the performance.”

Van Laanen said while training will ensure her team can better serve the community, there are tools she wants to invest in as well. The center already has a Parent Suite, where nursing moms can privately feed their children or parents can change their children if needed. It also serves as a place for kids and families to regroup and calm any anxieties they may have. Van Laanen said she wants to add things such as weighted blankets, ear covers and fidget spinners to the Parent Suite.

“When you take the time to enjoy a live experience, it provides an opportunity to slow down and become one with the moment. When you can share that with people around you it builds this connection,” Van Laanen said. “To be able to have that is so important, regardless of your background, regardless of your ability. That is a very important part to beginning to feel one with the community and connected with yourself and those around you.”

Fox Cities PAC also offers a Social Story online that “describes the environment people will be in at the Center in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses specific to their experience at the Center.” This ensure people will feel comfortable upon arrival and know what to expect, in hopes of alleviating any anxieties they may have.

“Familiarity is such an important thing for some people. They don’t want to be surprised,” Van Laanen said.

Van Laanen said the Social Story is just one example of how Fox Cities PAC developed after getting feedback from its patrons.

The accessibility enhancements will gradually roll out as updated technology becomes available, but patrons will see immediate changes — such as staff trainings — as well.

“Mental well being, social connectedness and a sense of belonging, is so vital to a person’s overall health. We know that all of those pieces need to fit together, and that’s true for all of us. Sometimes it can especially be true if people are having a hard time creating those experiences elsewhere in the community,” Van Laanen said.

The donation comes from long-time Fox Cities PAC supporters Barb and Chuck Merry.

“Anyone, regardless of background, experience or ability should feel welcomed by available services that enhance their experience. That approach is living up to our mission statement: A multicultural gathering place for the community,” Barb Merry said.

Learn more about ammenities that are already available at Fox Cities PAC, here