Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center

The Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center recently moved into a renovated building in Mount Pleasant. The designers emphasized the efficiency inside over any architectural flourish outside. Robert Behre/Staff

MOUNT PLEASANT — Building modern passenger jets and helping victims of child abuse might not seem to have much in common.

But a visit to the new Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center will underscore how they do: In both cases, the more efficiencies, the better.

Dee Norton has operated out of a retrofitted building on upper King Street for all of its history, until it had the chance to remodel a large building off Long Point Road that was built originally as a church and later used as a gym.

Architects Rush and Judy Dixon worked closely with Executive Director Dr. Carole Swiecicki and Director of Development Beverly Hutchison on converting the interior into space that would optimize the flow of clients and how the staff works with them.

In turn, Swiecicki and Hutchison worked with Dee Norton board member Lane Ballard, who learned principles of "lean manufacturing" as part of his job as Boeing's vice president of materials and manufacturing technology. Those principles value natural light, staff feedback and visual cues about where the process, be it assembling airplanes or treating children, is starting to back up.

The lean manufacturing concepts took root in Japan after World War II and have been embraced by Toyota, Boeing and other major corporations. The gist is to identify and eliminate inefficiencies that waste time and add unnecessary cost.

"For us, inefficiencies are a time when children and parents are waiting," Swiecicki said. "We've have been completely at capacity for three years at least."

The new center's main lobby and waiting room has a smaller, glass-enclosed room that older children may use to study. Local organizations, such as Communities in Schools, may provide tutors, helping the older children make the most of their down time.

Children then progress down a main hallway with specific rooms on either side, and an ancillary waiting room that lets staff know who is waiting on them.

"One of the benefits of the new center is if you’re able to have everybody in the room so Jimmy and Sally only have to tell their story once, it's better for everybody," Ballard said. "It reduces this difficult period."

Architect Judy Dixon agreed. She said the different steps inside the center include a lot of unknowns, and there are different rooms and different staff interactions, whether it's forensic interviews, medical exams or counseling.

Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center

The main lobby and waiting room inside the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center has a glass enclosure so older children can do homework or be tutored during down time. Robert Behre/Staff

"Through the design of the main lobby, close proximity of the intake and family advocate offices and interview rooms, the creation of an second, quieter waiting area adjacent to the medical suite, all with colorful and intuitive way-finding, we hope that the physical space makes this visit a little easier for these brave clients and their families," she said.

The center's $5.2 million expansion not only includes the renovation of this new office but also remodeling its original King Street space, which should be completed next year. It also will be follow similar principles.

Hutchison said before, Dee Norton never had the luxury of having space specifically designed and built for its mission. "We didn't have the luxury of taking a step back and saying, 'How do we do this?'"

Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center

This room inside the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center lets a parent interact with their child. The parent wears an earbud and is coached by a center counselor on the other side of the one-way window. Robert Behre/Staff

"Most everybody who comes here and has been to the other one (on King Street) says, 'Oh, this is much bigger,'" she said. "It's not. It's actually smaller. It's just more logical."

"Frankly, if you're doing lean correctly, it should require no additional floor space, people or money — if it’s done correctly," Ballard said. "Common sense isn't always that common." 

The center, which will host an open house at 11 a.m. Friday, also offers warmer touches, such as more natural light and artwork done by the center staff with coaching from those at the Redux Contemporary Art Center.

Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center

The interior of the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center is decorated with artwork done by the center's staff, with coaching from Redux Contemporary Art Center. Robert Behre/Staff

Dixon said the renovation's goal was to spend most of the dollars focused on the client and staff, so the exterior had few bold architectural changes on the outside. The project did include a welcoming garden, including a gate with custom ironwork incorporating the center's logo.

Each time a child visits, he or she is given the chance to select a bird (which resembles the center's logo), and attach it to a custom wall art installation that depicts a tree, symbolizing support, growth and strength.

"At a minimum this is an ice-breaker and a way for the DNCAC staff to interact right away with the child," Dixon said. "At most it becomes symbolic once the child sees all of the other birds on the wall, hence realizing that they are not alone. Additionally, for any visitor to the building or staff member viewing the mural, it becomes a visual document of just how many children the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center is helping."

The idea for the birds and the tree stemmed from the leadership staff and designers. "It is so poignant - every time we would present this, I would tear up," Dixon added.

Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center

A few wooden boards mark different spots inside the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center. As children move inside, they transfer their vinyl bird from one station to the next. Judy Dixon/Provided

The center began seeing children last week and is expected to make a difference in this part of the Charleston metro area. Dee Norton's research shows that in the East Cooper area, it has served only an estimated 36 percent of children suffering from abuse. On Daniel Island and in Cainhoy, that number drops to 21 percent.

The new Long Point Center and the renovated King Street facility are projected to be able to serve about 3,500 children a year, more than twice the current number.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.