Spring Symposium Attendees Visit the Past—and Focus on the Future

We’re thrilled with the success of the ninth Global Leadership Institute Symposium earlier this month. Participation and presentations via webinar by so many pioneering leaders from across North America and around the world—representing 30 states and six countries—is a testament to the continued commitment to fuel a new generation of housing and community options for people with autism and other neurodiversities everywhere.

Huge thanks to our presenting sponsors Make Waves and Interest Ministries for their steadfast support of this seminal semiannual event that brings so many committed people together primed to move the needle on adult options and life course outcomes. 

To further fortify those on their paths to what’s next, First Place is offering a series of three workshops focused on relevant, timely topics. Attendance is limited, so please register soon. The conversation continues at the fall symposium October 13-15, so save the dates!

Triple-Match Challenges Helps First Place Make Waves

Thanks to Make Waves Family Foundation, First Place AZ raised nearly $100,000 the week of April 19 in a very enthusiastic response to a triple-match challenge in recognition of Autism Acceptance Month.

Make Waves is committed to providing innovative, scalable and replicable programs addressing the lifelong needs of young adults on the autism spectrum. This includes housing, independent-living skills, education and employment. Collaborating with passionate, likeminded nonprofits like Make Waves helps keep First Place focused on our vision of ensuring that housing and community options are as bountiful for individuals with autism and other neurodiversities as they are for everyone else.

It is with boundless gratitude that we acknowledge the Roth family and everyone who enabled us to benefit from the generous match. Thank you for all the ways you support us daily and help us continue moving forward in our mission to create a supportive, sustainable community where adults with autism and other neurodiversities live and thrive with pride, purpose and endless possibilities!

Vaccine #2 Brings Welcome Relief to Residents

First Place–Phoenix residents stepped up on behalf of their own health and that of those around them when they returned this month for COVID-19 vaccine #2. Everyone knew what to expect this time and collectively sighed with relief when it was over. They also benefitted from a webinar in advance of both Moderna doses to address general questions and possible side effects. Thanks again to Scottsdale Physician’s Group for their support of First Place helping residents learn to manage their healthcare on the path to healthier, more successful independent living. 

Phoenix Is “Having a Moment”

In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, azcentral.com reporter BrieAnna J. Frank spoke with several First Place residents to learn about how we can better understand adults with autism and what more can be done within the community to address their needs. Frank’s article highlights the progress we’re making at First Place in collaboration with our sister nonprofit the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and other partners, including Dignity Health and Creighton University School of Medicine’s new Health Sciences Campus. It also explores how the expansion of programs and initiatives can help the Valley become more understanding, accepting and supportive.

Denise Resnik’s Latest Blog

Read Denise’s latest blog about lessons learned at First Place—and other places—on the path to fueling a new generation of housing and community options for people with autism and other neurodiversities.

Fueling a new generation of housing and community options for people with autism and other neurodiversities is an experiment—a big one.

While we all want successful outcomes, the variables are vast, resources limited, models scarce and data still out of reach. With demand for housing and services at an all-time high as approximately 60,000 individuals with autism in the U.S. transition to adulthood each year, we cannot afford to fail.

At First Place, we’re doing our best to make informed decisions and help others do the same. During the ninth First Place Global Leadership Institute Symposium, we heard from pioneering leaders from across the U.S. who shared some of what they wished they had known before building their properties. 

Revelations include:

  • A pandemic?! That wasn’t in the plan!
  • Bridging the divide between start-up and full operations
  • Staff training and turnover
  • Policies and procedures
  • Importance of broad community buy-in and support
  • Significant investment of time and money
  • Diverse skill set necessary for being a landlord
  • How to meet the needs of various special populations served

Several polls taken during the event also revealed some common “pain points,” like funding, affordability, privacy issues, employment and life course outcomes. It’s encouraging to see so many of us on the same path—and the same page.

Sure, we all make mistakes along the way—but we can work together to avoid the big ones! First Place has been sharing its own “lessons learned” through the years to help others avoid some missteps and reinventing the wheel. To drive and realize the dream of a new marketplace of housing and community options, we’re here to help guide pioneers at each stage of their journeys—from visioning, organizing and planning to design, construction and operations.

We know people need different things at different times—and we have listened. That’s why we have organized our support in a variety of ways, making it easier for you to engage, learn and advance your plans.

In the meantime, here’s what else we can recommend:

  • Celebrate. Enjoy your successful completion of next steps, pleasant surprises and rewards along the way!
  • Expect stuff to happen. Be ready, stay humble and continue learning.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail. None of us gets it right every time! Don’t allow failure to stop you. Course correct and make setbacks temporary—they’re an important part of the journey!
  • Be strong and resilient. Surround yourself with those you respect and trust. Community is built by community—build yours to last!
  • Look back to look forward. Forge your path ahead by keeping an eye on the rearview mirror.

Don’t delay in seeking sources that can help you advance your decision-making, reduce your risks and get you moving toward your goals. And please join the rest of us as we press on to learn more, grow more and offer more housing and community options—together!

To keep the momentum going, we’re offering a series of three workshops focused on relevant, timely topics. Attendance is limited, so please register at your earliest convenience.

Register: $59 per workshop or $149 for all three

Ian McCoy, First Place Transition Academy graduate

By Brent Jackson, First Place Resident and Transition Academy Graduate

When asked what my first idea would be for a blog, it took me a couple of days to really get my gears going. Then the perfect idea came to me. This is it: I can connect with former graduates of the First Place Transition Academy: Where are they now and what are they have been doing since graduation.

During my first couple weeks in the Transition Academy, I was really struggling and couldn’t even fathom all the expectations or what I was getting myself into. Someone suggested I reach out to a former student for help, but I decided to just push through and ask for help from staff and instructors.

Fast forward to April 3, 2021. Former TA instructor, Brad Herron-Valenzuela, reached out to a former graduate who expressed genuine interest in contributing to a blog. I never imagined it would be the same student I wanted to meet back when I was struggling!

His name is Ian McCoy, who graduated May 5, 2017 from the First Place Transition Academy. To find out more information about Ian, I asked three important questions: 1) What are you doing currently since graduating from the program? 2) What positives and negatives did you experience during your first, second or both years? And 3) When COVID-19 hit last year, how did it affect you? How are you doing now?

Here are Ian’s thoughtful answers:

  1. For three and a half years, I’ve been working with my mother as the front office concierge for our family-owned migraine/headache specialist office. I’m currently living in my own apartment in North Scottsdale, and it’s quite a bonus living within walking distance of your job. My hobbies still include: independent research, reading, poetry, archery, shooting, extreme fitness, martial arts, caring for others, gourmet cooking, improv comedy, learning new things, investing in stock—the list goes on and on.
  2. Let’s begin with the bad news, since I was able to change those experiences into a learning lesson rather than a burden. Throughout the program, whenever I got stressed, agitated or angry, I would excuse myself for a walk down to the gas station. When I got there, I either purchased a lottery ticket, tin of chewing tobacco or can of beer. A couple of positive highlights: April 15, 2015, I scored my first public speaking gig at the Wrigley Mansion. A few months later, I was on KTVK 3TV and PBS. Happy to see that a majority of the students at First Place are doing great.
  3. I was residing in Tempe when COVID-19 hit. I remember a time in early February last year when I woke up with a sharp pain in my chest, a fever of 101.5 degrees and trouble breathing; every time I had to cough, it felt like a 12-gauge shotgun slug had hit me in the ribs! After I left Urgent Care, they suggested I stay home for two weeks. Despite the test coming back negative, [today’s more advanced and reliable screening] wasn’t available back then. Due to the Americans and friends with loved ones who were lost, the pandemic made me feel cynical and more reluctant to trust others. I maintained social distancing, wore a mask when required and stayed home whenever needed. On the bright side, staying home during the pandemic helped me develop more skills cooking meals rather than getting takeout. As of today, I haven’t drunk alcohol since November 13, 2020. The awesome part of my apartment: I’m paying the same amount of rent for this one-bedroom than I was paying for a studio apartment in Tempe. That’s an upgrade!

It was truly an honor to write my first blog for First Place. Thank you, Ian McCoy, for your participation in helping me with this incredible opportunity.

Read more insights from Brent Jackson in BrieAnna J. Frank’s April 19, 2021 article in azcentral.com titled “We are having a moment:” Autism Awareness Month shows progress made, challenges ahead.

I recently celebrated my two-year anniversary at First Place. During that time, I’ve watched the organization grow from an energized start-up to delivering on its vision as a global thought leader in neurodiverse housing and community development—all while weathering a pandemic! Most importantly, I experienced firsthand the impact of First Place–Phoenix on the lives of residents and their families.

For as great an impact as I have seen, the residents of First Place have taught me even more. My relationship with them is unique. I am a humble accountant—part of a finance team that my colleagues refer to as “mission control.” My interactions differ from those of our support staff, who work directly with residents every day. I’m also a millennial, which means most of the resident population and I are peers.

I see them go through a lot of the same struggles I go through and enjoy a lot of the same things I enjoy. I see them heading off for work in the morning and aspiring to what’s next as I’m walking in to start my day. I also perceive what’s different—not in physical appearance or cognitive ability, but in opportunity.

Many First Place residents lost their jobs when COVID-19 hit and businesses scaled back or shut down. I come home every day to a loving spouse while many residents are still searching for someone who will love and understand them. My parents are comforted knowing I can take care of myself so that as they grow old, they don’t have to worry about me. And I appreciate that many First Place parents are still fighting for a world that provides equal opportunities for all with neurodiversities to live and thrive.

These similarities and differences have taught me three important lessons:

  1. Life is a shared experience.
    One day, I was in the property manager’s office discussing a needed repair. It was one of those days where I had a ton of work to do and not enough time to do it. The office door was open and a resident walked by.

    “Hey, John,” I said. “How was your day?”

    “Not good, man. I had a bad day at work, man,” he said.

    “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “I’m having a bad day at work, too.”

    “You are?!” he replied. “Oh man, we are both having a bad day at work, man!”

    I wasn’t trying to make him feel better, but knowing I was also going through some struggles made him walk away smiling. Sometimes all we need is to know that someone else understands.

  2. The world needs to adapt to a neurodiverse population—not the other way around.
    Many First Place residents have lost their jobs during the pandemic because they were employed in industries most affected or in entry-level positions. Yet many of the residents I know have talents far beyond the requirements of their job. I’ve yet to win a game of Scrabble or Connect4 against any resident. I’ve seen their beautiful artwork that adorns our halls. I’ve listened as they talk about their most recent obsession and recite incredible amounts of memorized information. Neurodiverse people have a wealth of ability; it’s just a different type of talent and the world needs to get better at allowing them to use it.

  3. We take life too seriously.
    Several First Place residents love receiving mail (our mailman Bill has celebrity status!) and when it doesn’t arrive on time, they get upset. First Place’s mental health coordinator helps them gain perspective and to appreciate that the mail will also come tomorrow. Those same residents shout with joy when they finally get that job they wanted or smile with glee when they answer a question correctly during our Friday afternoon Jeopardy games.

    There are days when I find myself griping. My day didn’t go as planned. My wife is upset. My dog is sick. Yet it only takes a smile to turn it all around. You may think that the mail coming late is no big deal, but we all make little things seem bigger than they are. Next time you find yourself complaining, remember to live in the moment. The next moment could be better than the one you are in now, and the one after that may be even better still.

I’ve been so thankful to be part of First Place over the past two years—and I’m excited how, in many ways, we’re just getting started.

Mitch Barr is the finance and planning coordinator at First Place. He and his wife Rachel live in Glendale with Wrigley, their golden retriever.