First Place Transition Academy Program Moving Forward—But First…Congrats, Graduates!

Plans are underway for freshmen to begin the fall 2020 Transition Academy program in early August. Enrollment will be capped at 18 participants and we are at near capacity. Our May webinar attracted prospective students and their families from across Arizona and the U.S. Informational virtual tours and Q&As are scheduled for every Monday and Friday in June.

In collaboration with GateWay Community College, sophomores will be celebrating their completion of the program with SARRC and First Place via a virtual graduation ceremony on Thursday, June 4. Feel free to “join” us!

National Geographic Recognizes First Place in May 2020 Issue

Just a few months following the opening of First Place–Phoenix in 2018, renowned National Geographic photojournalist Lynn Johnson visited for a firsthand look. The finished product is part of an extraordinary 27-page feature authored by Judith Newman in the current issue titled “Coming of Age with Autism.” We’ve also created an in-house, behind-the-scenes look at the many facets of having a journalistic institution like National Geographic in our midst.

Virtual Tours of First Place–Phoenix Starting this Month

Families interested in the Transition Academy and First Place Apartments can now take a virtual tour. Here’s the schedule with several options to fit various schedules. We’re also eager to welcome visitors back to First Place for in-person tours when we can safely lift visiting restrictions.

Pivotal Study Advances with Support from the Phoenix IDA

One of our most exciting First Place Leadership Institute initiatives now underway is A Place in the World, sister study to 2009’s groundbreaking Opening Doors report. A Place in the World will provide the foundational nomenclature for housing and service delivery models with the goal to further define market segments, establish best practices and guiding principles, and help drive crucial collaborations that address the current housing crisis for special populations. This new video shares more.

Thanks to partial funding from the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority, work continues with our partners—Autism Housing Network and ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy—as we set our sights on a fall 2020 introduction, pending additional funding. The Phoenix IDA is a longtime supporter of First Place, having provided integral funding in 2016 for the growth and expansion of the Transition Academy.

An international Leadership Advisory Board (LAB) representing industry luminaries is collaborating to develop strategies for how public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors can build, grow and align communities to meet ever-increasing demand and serve the vast and diverse needs of individuals with autism and other neurodiverse populations.

Denise’s Latest Blog Reminds Us of Life’s Lessons

As we re-emerge and re-engage, Zoom is compelling many of us to take a closer look at the world—and ourselves. Read this blog.

The Latest on Keeping First Place Healthy

Detailed weekly updates offer a firsthand look at our ongoing efforts to keep the First Place community healthy and vibrant as we maintain “level yellow” (cautious re-emergence) and continue to follow CDC and state protocols. We are constantly making adjustments as we gradually return to routines and activities while finding creative ways to socially connect amid the ever-present necessity for physical distance.

Sydnee Schwartz, First Place Social Media Specialist & Photographer

Emotion is an important part of digital storytelling. It is essential to telling the right story with the right amount of power, making it impactful for the photographer, subject and viewer.

National Geographic’s May 2020 issue shares the powerful story of “Coming of Age with Autism” in its 27-page feature that includes several images from First Place–Phoenix. In December 2018, renowned National Geographic photojournalist Lynn Johnson visited First Place–Phoenix as part of her feature looking into the lives of adults with autism from across the country.

At the time, I was a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, earning my Bachelor of Arts in Journalism with a focus on digital media. As a student, I spent many hours volunteering at First Place, photographing and documenting many of our firsts—groundbreaking, opening ceremony, first Night to Shine prom—among other signature events.

I joined Lynn for her one-on-one interview and a portrait session with Lauren, then on an outing to the mall where she documented Lauren, in all her festivity and joy, trying beauty products at the Lush store. I quickly learned how to capture moments with special populations while respecting the subjects and communicating genuine emotion about their experiences.

In my current role as First Place social media specialist, I use Lynn’s methods to document everyday life at First Place in what I hope are powerful and memorable ways for you, our community and our cause.

Enriching the Story with Context

One of the most important things I learned from Lynn was providing context to photos to richen the story being told. With the right amount of context, the viewer can get the entire story from a single shot.

Matt, First Place Apartments resident, is often one of the first residents to register for community life activities. These are some of my favorite photos where he’s in the moment, enjoying himself, learning with his peers and providing context for the story of his growing independence, personal development and joy-filled days.  

Capturing Emotion

Jenny is direct in expressing herself—what’s on her mind and what she wants to do. In moments worth capturing, she shows great emotion, especially when enjoying herself at First Place events.

These images help convey Jenny’s true feelings of being welcomed and accepted. Seeing her smile or her eyes light up with pride and joy is infectious and creates a lasting connection with the viewer.

Developing Relationships to Create Natural Moments

My biggest takeaway from Lynn was the importance of taking the time to develop relationships through simple conversation with subjects so that they feel comfortable with both photographer and camera, allowing natural moments to happen more spontaneously.

I took that approach with Christy—a resident I photographed often—before shooting an event last spring, catching up with her, asking what she was excited about for the day and if she would show me some of her art. Once the event started, Christy seemed to forget I was sticking around. She was in her element, at ease with me and my camera in her personal space.

Observing and learning from Lynn, a master in action, was an unexpected and memorable real-world experience—and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As today’s children with autism transition to adulthood in unprecedented numbers, the world must better understand the challenges and triumphs of the journey through the lens of individual and family experiences—and pioneering properties like First Place. I’m honored and grateful to do my part!

Zoom is compelling many of us to take a closer look. For me, it starts with my aging neck and the sun damage due to the naïve use in youth of baby oil and reflectors in search of that perfect tan. Then there’s the uneven haircut, the result of manicure scissors and a greater appreciation for how others with a trained eye and far more nimble fingers than mine make it look so easy—even when it’s not. And let’s not forget those hard-earned character lines around my eyes, thanks to age or wisdom or both—or simply not enough sleep.

Virtual communication is doing much more than connecting us through meetings and webinars. It’s connecting families, friends and each of us with our priorities as it reminds us of life’s important lessons:

  • Worry less, stay present more. My husband often reminds me (and I need reminding) that the majority of what we worry about never happens, yet we invest all kinds of energy and time in the worry. When stuff happens, we’ll deal with it. Why expend the energy twice?
  • Live our priorities. At the top of our list is parent training with SARRC to support Matt in his communication and strengthen his independent living skills at First Place–Phoenix and our family home. And don’t even get me started on newly two granddaughter Hannah Jo…
  • Program fun into today. Get outside before the heat hits, share a Netflix program, play games, paint your own toes—or someone else’s. We seek out simple pleasures, including reading Dr. Seuss with Uncle Matt to Hannah.
  • Focus on what we can versus cannot do. That kind of can-do spirit is front and center as the annual SARRC Community Breakfast—a Valley fixture for more than 20 years—goes virtual this week. What an extraordinary chance to stay connected and supportive…from the comfort of one’s own home!

We’re experiencing all kinds of new connections with those in similar situations as we try to do our best to help those in need—and prepare for the future. A tall order, for sure!

In 23 years, SARRC has navigated—and made—a lot of history. And in recent years, so has First Place AZ, SARRC’s sister nonprofit since 2012. Together, we are hyper-focused on more hopeful outcomes and futures, leading with family and friends doing our best together to do what’s right and best for individuals of all ages impacted by autism. We can all start by registering for SARRC’s 22nd Annual Community Breakfast this Thursday, May 21, as we navigate these extraordinary times and continue supporting those we love and care about the most.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently announced his new executive order: “Stay Healthy, Return Smarter, Return Stronger.” As we re-emerge and re-engage, turn up the dimmer and take a closer look at how we can all return stronger—and wiser!