Lauren spoke at SARRC’s 15th Annual Community Breakfast in 2013 and the 1,800 people in attendance responded with a standing ovation. She’s a remarkable and courageous young woman.

I am a 28-year-old with high-functioning autism, a.k.a. Asperger’s syndrome. I have lived with my parents and sister all my life. I would like to live at First Place because I want to be independent in my life. First Place would allow me to do that and have friends over as well. That is very important for me because I am a social butterfly. I believe I can thrive and succeed more in life if I live on my own. Of course, I am going to be nervous and scared at first, but I am sure I will embrace the new life change. Living independently will also allow me to meet new people and make new friends, which is also very important to me. When I move to First Place, I will meet and get to know individuals that are on the same level on the spectrum that I am. We can understand what each other has gone through, as well as help and support each other.

Check out this film from early 2014 of Lauren talking about First Place.

Personal story shared by Lauren Heimerdinger 

The components of First Place fit together like puzzle pieces, forming a clear vision of a bright future, and the path to get there.

Live. Learn. Lead.

When you drill down to the details of First Place, breaking away the various petals of the concept and design, these are the words that stay with you. And depending on who you are, they mean different things. For some, they are ambitious destinations—goals set out for those that will very soon come to First Place. For others, for parents and siblings and family members, they are wishes—dreams that their children will become adults who are able to live fulfilling lives, able to learn new skills, and able to lead us into a future that is accepting, embracing and empowering.

More than 1.5 million Americans are living with an autism spectrum disorder. One in 68 are being diagnosed with autism and more than 500,000 U.S. children impacted by the disorder are entering adulthood this decade. When you consider these numbers, the need to develop a place that helps these individuals live and learn, a place that leads the way and carves a new approach becomes imperative.

The facts are sobering. Most individuals with autism will need some type of support throughout their lives, and the average incremental cost to support a person with autism over their lifetime is about $2.4 million.

But what if we changed that outlook, flipped it on its head, and saw things for their potential rather than their cost? What would happen then? What if we taught people how to live, gave them opportunity to learn and lead the way?

Consider the components of First Place

Our Mixed-Use Property: First Place is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban community created and facilitated by SARRC. This urban area offers jobs, volunteers and recreational activities, continuing education, friends, and an appreciation that individuals with special needs can be productive, contributing members of society and bring out the best in all of us. It is a special community and living, learning laboratory for the residents and students at First Place, and the important work of the First Place Leadership Institute.

Live

First Place Apartments – The contemporary, 50-unit First Place Apartments will be community-connected, transit-oriented and sustained by a suite of amenities and supportive services.  Here, residents will find the comforts of home, without the distractions that can make life difficult. Residents may choose to live by themselves, with a roommate or with an aide/mentor.

Learn

First Place Transition Academy – Modeled after the celebrated Taft College Transition to Independent Living (TIL) program, founded in 1995, First Place is translating a successful rural- and community college-based program, into the fabric of the 6th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. More than 350 students have graduated from the California program and are living more independently than they and their families ever imagined. The program is also saving the state $300 million based on career-readiness and greater independence early in adult life, and the significant reduction in state-funded support services. Jeff Ross, founder and creator of the TAFT TIL program, recently retired from Taft and has relocated to Arizona to serve as the program director of First Place. He is working closely with SARRC to help the organization build its new residential services program, so SARRC may serve as the program manager and leverage its research capabilities, professional staff and clinical operations.

Lead

First Place Leadership Institute – Represented by a faculty of luminaries from across the country, the First Place Leadership Institute is set to focus on pressing concerns at both the local and national public policy levels.  Through a National Housing Action Plan, First Place is creating a location and platform for geographically and programmatically diverse organizations united in their mission of creating more housing choices for individuals with autism and related disorders.

At first glance, First Place is like any other building—it has a blueprint and the basic building blocks that make up a structure, with rooms and places for activities. Sitting empty, you could walk through the halls and imagine many things happening here.

But then a magic ingredient is added—community.

 Over the course of the First Place blog and stories, we’ll be sharing a lot of those magic ingredients. Community is just the first of many essentials that take First Place and sets it apart, gives it power, and helps it become a place that empowers. But, for now, community is a great place to start, because when it comes to First Place, community is at its heart.

The idea of community can take on many meanings, and for First Place, there are quite a few. First, there is the physical—where is this community? First Place is located in the heart of Greater Phoenix, the 6th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. A transit-oriented development, First Place is leveraging the benefits of a supportive urban area, connecting residents to jobs, friends, lifelong education, the arts, recreation and other aspects of a community.

However, beyond those things that you see when you walk out the door, First Place is a development that brings together the essential intangibles of community, like learning about your neighbor, making friends, forming memories and creating a true sense of home, purpose and belonging—socially as well as physically.

The Goals of First Place:

1) Create an internationally recognized development with a mix of residential options that serves as home for individuals with autism and other special abilities.

a. Develop the First Place Apartments, a 50-unit property of studio, one- and two-bedroom units, that is community connected, transit-oriented and sustained by a suite of amenities, supportive services and sound business principles.

b. Establish the First Place Academy, a two-year residential learning opportunity for 32 students who are transitioning to more independent living and who reside at First Place in year one, and off-campus in year two.

2) Demonstrate success of residents and students through quality of life indicators including health, joy and fulfillment, community engagement and productivity, greater self-sufficiency and independence, and peace of mind for their families.

a. Establish results-oriented, well-documented transition programs for First Place residents and Academy graduates.

b. Collaborate with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and other local and national research partners to conduct longitudinal studies.

c. Demonstrate success of “Resident Fellow” program focused on promising outcomes for graduate students and medical residents and what it means to be a good neighbor.

3) Serve as a site for education, training and thought leadership focused on expanding quality housing options.

a. Represented by a faculty of luminaries from across the country, the First Place Leadership Institute is set to focus on pressing concerns for differently abled individuals at both the local and national levels.

b. Create a location and platform for geographically and programmatically diverse organizations united in their mission of creating more housing choices for individuals with autism and other special abilities.

4) Empower advancements in public policy to support new models based on positive outcomes; respected, evidence-based research; and sound financial frameworks, facilitating the scalability of similar future developments.

a. Advance discussions for national standards of support and clinically informed policy.

b. Research and analyze public policy; coordinate and collaborate with local and national advocates.

c. Develop and host sought after international “Think Tanks” with First Place faculty and other thought leaders.

Open. Four letters and a simple meaning. Open embraces and invites. It conjures opportunity and newness. And for many who may have feared closed doors, the fact that new ones are now opening also means hope. A very exciting development for adults with autism, 18 years and older, is now open for enrollment.

PHOENIX (November 20, 2014 -Updated 2016) – Adults with autism, 18 years and older, now have a new post-high school option. It’s called First Place ® and it’s being advanced in collaboration with the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC).  Students are now enrolling in the two-year First Place Transition Academy, which focuses on independent living skills, continuing education opportunities, vocational training and employment.

The First Place Transition Academy is being launched through a beta site at 29 Palms Apartments in Phoenix, which co-locates eight two-bedroom apartments for adults with autism and 13 affordable housing units for seniors. Residents will live at the beta site for two years and then transition into the community to live close to their family or job. They will also have the option to live at the First Place Apartments, expected to break ground in 2016, in Phoenix.

“This program is a comprehensive educational opportunity that focuses on functional life skills, paid work experience and course work to prepare the individual for a successful independent adult life,” said Jeff Ross, First Place program director.

Ross founded the nationally recognized Transition to Independent Living program at Taft College in California. Documented outcomes of the program include that 95 percent of graduates live independently, 89 percent are employed and 88 percent of graduates pay for all of their living expenses.

Orientation for living at 29 Palms begins in December. Classes begin in early January. The program at 29 Palms, overseen by SARRC, has three major components: teaching functional life skills on site, paid work internships throughout the community and independent living courses at GateWay Community College beginning in fall 2015.  Students must be approved for acceptance to the tuition-based program.

“Our focus is to help adults learn the skills they need so they may live where they want and as independently as possible, with access to the people, places, jobs and activities they prefer and that make them happy,” said Daniel Openden, president/CEO of SARRC.

Special features of 29 Palms for adults with autism include:

 

Interested applicants apply online and then undergo a life skills assessment conducted by SARRC and First Place. Annual tuition, which covers rent, classes, individualized services and activities, is $3,500 a month.

Developed by the Foundation for Senior Living and in concert with First Place and SARRC, 29 Palms was designed and renovated to meet the needs of individuals with autism. The renovation was made possible through a grant from the Arizona Department of Housing, a loan from the Arizona Community Foundation and other charitable sources. Del Sol Furniture is providing interior furnishings for the Transition Academy units.

The Arizona Department of Housing recently presented 29 Palms with the Brian Mickelsen Housing Hero Award for Outstanding Affordable Housing Initiative.

Adults with autism will live and learn at the beta site while the First Place mixed-use development is being completed. Envisioned as a replicable model to offer innovative housing, educate adults with autism on life skills and train service providers and other professionals, First Place combines three complementary components: First Place Apartments (for residents), First Place Transition Academy (for students), and First Place Leadership Institute (a facility for service providers, professionals and physicians).

“Backed by 15 years of research, First Place celebrates diversity, independent living and a path toward opening doors to more real estate options for individuals with autism and other special abilities,” said Denise D. Resnik, First Place founder and Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) co-founder.

About First Place

First Place is a nonprofit organization advancing innovative residential options for adults with autism and related disorders. Plans are underway for a mixed-use residential prototype for the individuals who live there, people who work and learn there, and family and friends that come and go. Led by private sector principles, First Place aspires to be a replicable model promoting collaboration among the private, public and nonprofit sectors, and a catalyst for advancing federal public policy focused on housing solutions for special populations.  First Place celebrates neuro-diversity, independent living and a path toward opening doors for more real estate options. For more information or to apply for the First Place Academy beta program at 29 Palms, visit www.firstplaceaz.org.

About SARRC

Established in 1997, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) is an internationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to autism researcheducation, evidence-based treatment and community outreach. We are one of the only autism organizations in the world that provides a lifetime of services for individuals and their families while conducting cutting-edge research. More information is at www.autismcenter.org.

Check out this four-minute film about First Place, which reports on our big vision and exciting progress.

Every place that holds a special spot in our hearts has a story.

For me, the story of First Place begins with Matt Resnik. I was a green and eager journalist when I first met a young Matt. I wanted to write a story on autism, and what life was like for a family affected by it. All arrows pointed to Denise Resnik as the first call I needed to make.

I flipped open my notepad and filled it with facts, emotions, hopes, dreams and fears. Listening to Matt’s story, my eyes were opened. Matt’s journey, filled with milestones and setbacks, left a mark.

That first story, my favorite magazine piece I’ve written, also detailed the beginning of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC). It captured a place of hope that offers guidance, understanding, answers and opportunities.

It has been more than a dozen years since I first met Matt and I have since told many more stories. But there was one quote that really stood out, one that has been echoed time and again.

“What’s going to happen to Matt when he’s an adult and when I’m no longer able to care for him?” Denise asked.

She asked this question knowing she didn’t have the answer. There wasn’t one out there. Not yet.

Oh, but this place. Yes, this place—First Place takes that open-ended question and gives it an answer. It is the beginning of a new story, a second volume about a monumental voyage.

First Place offers a sense of community, learning, friendship, memories and hope. It is a future—a vision of a future once so fuzzy and unclear that is now bright and possible. And like most places, First Place needs people to help tell its story and I’m honored to help.

This is only chapter one. I am only a storyteller. This place has many stories to tell and I invite you inside to learn more and become a part of this story yourself—from its beginning.

Welcome to First Place. Chapter one: All things possible.

* Ginger Eiden is a First Place Storyteller and an author and journalist from Peoria, Arizona. She has been a volunteer writer for the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) for more than 10 years. She also writes under the name Ginger Scott.