ST. PETERSBURG — Connor Carlisle couldn't be dropped off at preschool like his brother or most other kids. Because he was born with cranial and brain stem abnormalities, Connor required a feeding tube, feeding pump and an oxygen and heart monitor.
At age 2, his mom got permission from Riviera Day School for Connor to start preschool if she attended, too.
"I would bring all his medical equipment," said Kerry Carlisle. "I wanted him to be fully included, to be the best he could be and reach his full potential."
The Kidz Club, a center for children with special medical needs opening this month, will offer a new opportunity for 99 kids like Connor. It's going into the former Winn-Dixie store at 850 Third Ave. S. The center is hiring about 30 employees including nurses, speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists.
"The concept has proven to keep people out of the doctors' offices and out of the hospital. These kids are getting put back into life," said Kevin Hirsch, a former Bayfront Medical Center trauma surgeon who wants to open four more Kidz Clubs in Florida. He is planning one for Hillsborough County by year's end.
Clients will include babies and children on monitors, with feeding tubes, colostomy bags, tracheotomies, spina bifida or cerebral palsy. Some may have severe asthma. Most will be younger than 6, but Hirsch said the door is open to all ages.
There are 3,477 children in Pinellas County with special medical needs who have no insurance or are underinsured for their condition, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Kidz Club will also allow a parent who was isolated at home with a special-needs child or constantly shuttling between therapy sessions to go back to work or school.
Hirsch is investing close to $1 million in the 12,300-square-foot center that now looks more like a modern art museum — with its high ceilings, curved walls and different sized and shaped windows — than an outdated grocery store. Hirsch, who also owns medical day spa AnuYou Institute, is basing the new project on four Kidz Clubs in Kentucky.
"A lot of these kids would be home with a private duty nurse or home health visits. They live a pretty isolated life. When they get to come to a Kidz Club they hang out with their peers," said Dick White, a partner in the 14-year-old Kentucky business and the architect for the St. Petersburg facility. "What we do for the children really advances them, but when they see what their peers do, the peer pressure really advances them."
More than 90 percent of the children patronizing the St. Petersburg Kidz Club will be paid for by Medicaid. With Medicaid cuts looming, it seems a risky time to invest in such a business. Hirsch joked that he might have to turn it into a nonprofit organization in a year or so.
"There is always concern about the stability of Medicaid, especially these days," said Lee Zimmerman, Kidz Club founder and CEO. "But because Kidz Clubs have proven to reduce Medicaid costs by getting family members out of the system, businesses that deal with medically fragile children haven't had their funding reduced in the past 15 years."
Along with the medical savings, and a reduction in emergency room visits, day care for special-needs kids has benefited families. Many families with medically fragile children end up in divorce because of financial and emotional stress.
"When the mother is the one who ends up caring for the child, the father goes back to work and the mother becomes totally inundated and socially isolated. Then the father comes home and wants dinner," Zimmerman said.
The St. Petersburg Kidz Club has several therapy rooms, including one with swings hanging from the ceiling, a crib room, a computer room, a library and an industrial kitchen that will serve two meals and a snack every day. A playground will go up behind the center in the parking lot facing Tropicana Field. Hirsch already has talked to the Rays about getting tickets for the kids to go to a game or two.
"I think this is great for moms," Carlisle said. Connor is now 9 years old and attends Shore Acres Elementary School. "It can be all consuming to have a child with complex medical needs. It's very important to be able to back out of that to go to work. It makes you a better parent."
The facility also brings hope to a mostly vacant shopping center, according to Paula Clair Smith with Osprey Real Estate Services, who handled the lease. "It helps when someone makes this kind of investment in the neighborhood," she said. "It starts energizing the area, and others will follow."
Reach Katherine Snow Smith at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]