Do you wonder what happens to kids with special needs and they graduate from high school or age out of other programs? How do kids with Special Needs learn how to live independently and successfully in the real world? I found this article about one program that helps kids succeed. Very cool.
Benjamin Fox went through the “help wanted” ads in the newspaper, but the 18-year-old found nothing to match his interests.
“I want to be a garbage man,” he said. “I think it would be fun.”
Fox, who has an intellectual disability, wants to work, but finding a job that matches his interests and skill set can be challenging. That’s where an after-school program new to Clay County, Free 2 Be Me, comes in.
The program, designed for people ages 12 to 21 with disabilities, focuses on teaching age-appropriate, real-life skills.
Free 2 Be Me is part of Henderson Haven, an Orange Park-based nonprofit agency providing community living and advocacy support services for people with developmental disabilities and their families in Northeast Florida for the past eight years. Launched Sept. 19, it’s available 2-6 p.m. on regular school days, said Fran Watkins, program executive director.
Watkins said they tailor the program to the participant’s needs. Younger ones may need homework help, while older participants may need help building job skills focusing on their interests and desires as they transition into adult life.
Down the hall from Fox, Jordan Mitchell, a 16-year-old with Down syndrome broke into the chorus of “I Believe I Can Fly” as he worked on word recognition as part of his homework. An aspiring church pastor or gospel musician, Mitchell correctly called out a series of words on flash cards with increasing speed during the exercise.
“This is not a day-care, baby-sitting service,” Watkins said. “We are building on and expanding what the kids already know, and the plans they have for the future.”
Serving individuals with Down syndrome, autism and intellectual disabilities, the program is intended to help families by providing safe, meaningful and fun after-school activities, said Sherri Henderson, who along with her husband, Lee, founded the agency.
With state funding being steadily cut for home care and support for the developmentally disabled over the past five years, families like Fox’s and Mitchell’s have been put in difficult situations, Lee Henderson said.
It’s especially hard for those who age out of school-based services when they turn 22. Many are not ready to transition to the real world, Sherri Henderson said. It creates difficult choices for the families.
“We as a family determined I couldn’t work outside the home any more when Ben turned 18,” Fox’s mother, Christa LaFarlette, said. Private home care was too expensive, so the family juggled work schedules to be home with him. Although friends and neighbors pitched in, the situation proved unworkable, LaFarlette said.
“I gave up my job [in real estate] to stay home with him,” said LaFarlette.
Mitchell’s mother, Rubi, faced a similar dilemma. She also worried that her son would become isolated. He needed to expand his world beyond their home, their church and school so he could develop his potential, she said.
“I just didn’t want him sitting home in front of the television. … Jordan has so much to give,” she said.
Fox and Mitchell’s high school teacher recommended Free 2 Be Me to their families.
“It was a true blessing,” Mitchell said.
Their sons are thriving in the program, the two mothers said. Both are doing better with their school work and gaining social skills that will serve them well later in life.
The program costs $65 a week, which is comparable to the cost of private day-care centers in the area.
Able to accommodate 30 participants at the Orange Park site, the program is open to Northeast Florida residents. Those outside Clay County must have their own transportation to and from the center, Sherri Henderson said.
Clay participants are dropped off by a county school district bus but picked up by their families at the end of the session, Watkins said.
“The program, it’s about what they can do,” Sherri Henderson said. “… This allows us to show that you may have some physical or intellectual disability, but you still have something to contribute and you can succeed in life.