This month marks the two-year anniversary of the First Place–Phoenix groundbreaking. I’m happy to report that our culture of inclusion and learning is alive and well.

We are enjoying the daily comings and goings of residents, including First Place Transition Academy participants, as they head off to work, study, volunteer, shop or simply to recreate. Seasonal highlights include everything from visits to the Desert Botanical Garden, ZooLights and the Musical Instrument Museum to shows like Elf the Musical, Winnie the Pooh and Swan Lake—with sunny hikes, holiday choirs and festivals in between.

Within First Place, shared experiences and collective memories are building our culture and an authentic and active community life. Consider these weekly happenings: Sunday brunch, Taco Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, bingo night (called in four languages by one of our residents) and barbecues at Joey’s Grill. And consider friendships being created naturally and nurtured daily!

On a very personal note, our 27-year-old son Matt has embarked on his journey of transition and taken us right along with him as he teaches us daily how best to support him. Together with First Place staff, private therapists and SARRC’s parent training, we are helping to shape his new routines and identify where he needs assistance.

Consider how we’re progressing together toward Matt’s more independent life at First Place:

Still a challenge: interpreting Matt’s tricky “yes” and “no” answers. When asked whether he brushed his teeth or took his medicine, he may answer no because he hears the question as a repeated request and doesn’t want to repeat the task if he’s already completed it. First Place support specialists are helping us explore other ways to frame questions. 

Matt is enjoying Bingo night, yoga, bowling and all kinds of community activities, including a recent Suns game with fellow residents. When he hosts dinner parties for neighbors, chicken drumettes, chips, cookies and apples are his go-to menu items, along with UNO, Scrabble, his favorite songs (The Beatles tunes included) and those of his guests.

Together with like-minded parent, grandparents, passionate pioneers and our uniquely supportive community, we are expanding Matt’s sphere of opportunity and independence, and helping him—and us—embark on a major new life chapter. Thank you to each and every supporter of First Place for believing and trusting in us—and giving us all greater peace of mind this holiday season and throughout the coming years.   

Matt’s Mom

After an exciting, jam-packed week, the very first Transition Academy participants can now call themselves graduates! Last Wednesday, the graduates were honored at a special convocation ceremony and lunch at GateWay Community College in Phoenix. Thursday was the actual graduation ceremony. The week wrapped up on Friday with a leisurely, delicious brunch at 29 Palms generously provided by First Watch. Family members, friends and SARRC and First Place staff gathered to mingle and reminisce. The big take-away was everything they learned over the last two years on their way to living more independent and joyful lives. Great things await our graduates!

A few graduates took the time to share their insights when asked to weigh in on the following:

1) Someone you know is interested in attending the Transition Academy and is asking you questions about your experience there. What advice would you give that person to get them started?

2) Tell us about one of your most special memories from the past two years.

By Denise Resnik, Matt’s mom; originally posted on Different Brains

Matt and I love to go bowling.  Others detect how much when we roll in with our own bowling balls, making us look much better than we are!

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 3Last year, we connected with a social group for young adults with autism and special needs and now find ourselves bowling most Saturday afternoons. With or without bumpers, bowling is a great equalizer. While some adopt more traditional bowling forms or use the aid of a ramp, others display creative streaks that make the experience even more fun and entertaining. There’s the two-handed, side bowler; the basketball bowler who throws the ball like he’s shooting hoops; the Wii bowler, who attempts to influence the ball through whole-body gestures and; of course, the let-it-roll-from-between-your-legs ‘granny style’ bowler.

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 2
Matt Resnik gets ready for his turn

Style doesn’t really matter.  There’s plenty of room for individuality.  The fact is each ball arrives to its intended destination knocking down the pins, sometimes quite surprisingly.  Smiles and high fives or frustrating sighs and words of encouragement often follow.  Strikes command a special criss-cross high 10!

Consider other great equalizers like karaoke and karate, or a business like Matt’s SMILE Biscotti, which makes customers smile (the shortest distance between two people)!  Differences and diversity can connect us and add character to a place, culture or Saturday afternoon—and they should be celebrated.

As we proceed with plans for the groundbreaking later this year of First Place-Phoenix, a new residential option for adults with autism and other special abilities, we’ve been focused on celebrating neuro-diversity. To accommodate for differences and support people to live more independently, the property features supportive physical space like smart home technology and sensitive design through sound reducing appliances, soothing color palettes and durable materials.  The property also includes a suite of supportive services, amenities and navigators for life skills, health/wellness and community connections.

Integrated into the fabric of community and located within the heart of the urban area, First Place embraces life’s ‘equalizers’ at every turn. We have big plans for this initiative, based on more than 15 years of research at SARRC and in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute and Arizona State University. To learn more, check out this brief film:

We also celebrate our participation in the Coalition for Community Choice, a national grassroots alliance of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their families and friends, disability rights advocates, professionals, educators, and housing and service providers, which aims to increase options for, and decrease barriers to, housing and employment choices.

Let It Roll- New Options, More Choices for Adults with Autism 4Together we advocate for more options that are person-­centered and based on individually defined preferred settings, support needs and meaningful life goals. We need more options so individuals and their families have more choices for what works best for them.

We hope you’ll join us in this effort and learn more about First Place, its Transition Academy now underway and operated by SARRC, and the First Place Apartments available fall ’17.

With Lucky Strike bowling alley just a few light rail stops away from First Place, I anticipate Matt will be putting his bowling ball to more frequent use in the years ahead. Joined by more friends, who are likely more fun, I hope he’ll will still want me to play on occasion too!

By Sydnee Schwartz, Contributing Writer

Students at the First Place Transition Academy have been learning a lot since they moved in. They are finding the importance in knowing how to balance jobs, school and free time, as well as adjust to living independently. They have also been focusing on three main areas of independence and adulthood: developing friendships, meal planning and taking care of their space.

Developing strong friendships is an important aspect of adulthood. The students at First Place take a course at GateWay Community College to help them with the fundamental tools of bonding with peers in their everyday lives. “The most important thing I learned was that friendships are a process,” said student Jake, “you want to work slow, see their interests, and find out if they would make a good friend for you.” Many of the students have already applied these tools to their classmates and neighbors, and have created budding friendships. “I enjoy hanging out with my neighbors and friends. It helps create a good community to be around,” Jake added.

Students have also learned things like making a menu, planning and shopping for meals, cooking new foods, and the importance of budgeting. Many of the residents enjoy cooking and enjoy the process and independence that comes along with making your own meal. It’s been an adjustment for them to figure out what meal they want, budget for the ingredients, and prepare it on their own, but they are handling the task well. New resident Max said his cooking is still a work in progress, but he hopes to learn to make foods like enchiladas and pastas.

Another important focus is apartment maintenance. Fridays are cleaning days, and the students are expected to divide cleaning responsibilities with their roommate to keep their space nice and clean. “Learning the importance of cleaning has been a good experience,” said current student Josh. Many of the students find cleaning to be easy and see the benefit in a clean space, but had trouble adjusting to task. “There were a lot of ups and downs, but overall, I like the independence,” Josh’s roommate Jake said.

The students here are really enjoying their adulthood and the community they are involved in. “Living at First Place has been good,” Josh said, “I feel like I will be able to apply what I learn here to my life when I am done with the program.” The students like the environment they are in; they are forming strong friendships, and they are confident that the skills they are learning now will help them succeed.

For nearly 40 years, I’ve been committed to helping individuals with varying challenges and disabilities live more independently.  My interest started as a teenager when my rock band played a charity gig at an institution for individuals with special needs. I was shocked that so many of these individuals were destined to an institutionalized life when they demonstrated abilities that should allow them to live in the community.

For 34 of my 38 years at Taft College in California, I served as the Director of Student Support Services.  In 1995, I created the Transition to Independent Living program, a residential campus-based program for adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. The program has been very successful in transitioning young adults into independent living situations throughout California.  I consistently experienced young adults living more independently and beyond their dreams and, in most cases, beyond the dreams of their parents and families.

More than 350 students have graduated from the program and the resulting data collected 10 years post graduation speaks volumes.  Consider: 95% live independently, 89% are employed and 88% are financially independent.

I planned to retire from my position at Taft in 2014 and do some part-time consulting, until I met Denise Resnik. Denise and a group of her colleagues visited my program and shared with me their vision for First Place.

This vision represents the most comprehensive plan I’ve seen in all my years in this profession. The idea that First Place would house a national training institute, a transition academy and individual residences for individuals with autism and other special abilities piqued my interest to the point that I agreed to become the program director. I did have two days of retirement (most people call that a weekend!) before I relocated to Phoenix last July.

We have been very busy as we make First Place a reality.  The infrastructure is coming along at a rapid pace. We are in the middle of orientation for the transition academy program, which is being housed at a beta site property; land has been purchased for the new mixed-use First Place development; and our capital campaign is in full gear.

The idea that we can create an environment in an urban area that integrates First Place participants and residents into the community to access employment opportunities, post-secondary educational programs and social/ recreational activities is monumental.  I’m thrilled to be a part of this vision and soon to be new reality!

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.