"Welcome to our new home," said Don Sinton, coordinator of public relations and development for Stepping Stones Learning Center, as he greeted a good-sized crowd at today's official groundbreaking for the inclusionary school's new, permanentlocation in Irondequoit.

Stepping Stones, founded about 19 years ago in Irondequoit and based in the former St. Thomas the Apostle School all that time, started with two teachers and nine students. Today, it has more than 500 students, from across the area, and 140 teachers. It has purchased the former Chase Pitkin building, originally a Wegmans, on Hudson Avenue. It plans to renovate the building over the next year and move the school there.

"The people of Irondequoit appreciated the garden department at Chase Pitkin," said Bill Strassburg, vice president of strategic planning for Wegmans, and former president of Chase Pitkin, at today's ceremony. "And now, something even more important young minds and bodies will be growing here."

Stepping Stones purchased the building from Wegmans and is still conducting a capital campaign to complete the major renovations that will be needed to covert it to a school.

Saying "there's a lot of history that goes back here," Strassburg said the building once housed the first Wegmans store in a suburb. Pointing to the ceiling inside, he said it's the same as the field house at St. John Fisher College.

Sinton said construction at the site will actually get under way this coming Monday, Nov. 4.

"I see our future being fantastic, with the ability to have this space," said Mariellen Cupini, founder and CEO of the school, which has programs for children with and without special needs.

Cupini added that Stepping Stones' philosophy is to look at a child's abilities, "not his or her disabilities."

Irondequoit Supervisor Mary Joyce D'Aurizio called the groundbreaking "a great day for Irondequoit ... We're going from a stumbling block to another stepping stone."

After the ceremony, Irondequoit Chamber of Commerce President Bob Spatola said, "This (project) can't be anything but positive for the Plaza (Irondequoit Plaza) and this area of town."

Irondequoit resident Sheila Fess said Stepping Stones was "like a perfect fit" for her son, Michael, who is now 22.

Kamaria and Javier Rivera have had their two children at Stepping Stones for going on their third year.

"I can't wait for the new facility," Kamaria. "There will be so many more opportunities for kids."

"There's so much more potential here," Javier agreed. "And, it's an ideal location. With Wegmans right next door, it doesn't get any better than that!"

The onetime garden center at the store will be converted to an enclosed play area.

The aim, Cupini said, it to have the new school open by September 2014, in time to celebrate Stepping Stones' 20th anniversary.