From outside its gates, it looks like a park — complete with trees, grass, swings, a trampoline, and other playground equipment.
But this high-tech therapeutic indoor play area is specially designed for children and young adults with special needs.
To be built in Livingston, the play area is being financed by a $500,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey to the Friendship Circle, an organization that provides services for Jewish children and teens with special needs.
But the play area is only one part of Friendship Circle’s $13.5 million “Lifetown,” a replica town center that will help teach life skills to youths with special needs.
On a recent walking tour of the facility at Microlab Road off Route 10, executive director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum stopped frequently at artists’ renderings of the areas that will replace largely vacant spaces, including the indoor “park.”
“Because special-needs children and young adults spend so much time in sterile white therapeutic settings, we want to create in Lifetown an environment where they get the same therapeutic impact in a space where they can feel like every other child. It will look like a park, not a doctor’s office,” said Grossbaum, who cofounded the Friendship Circle in New Jersey with his wife, Toba. Other branches of Friendship Circle operate in different regions of the United States.
The Grossbaums expect Lifetown to open nine months after construction begins in the spring, when workers start gutting the 47,000-square-foot building formerly used for light manufacturing and office space.
Friendship Circle, associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic outreach movement, has long created programs in which typically abled youngsters work and socialize with children with special needs.
Unlike the Friendship Circle, which has a strong Jewish component, Lifetown will be nonsectarian.
“They are two separate entities,” Grossman explained. “The Friendship Circle will remain a strictly Jewish organization because it is important to provide a Hebrew school and camp experience for Jewish kids. We want to make sure those programs don’t get diluted.
“At the same time, through Lifetown, we will have a series of programs open to everyone — from after-school programming to sports leagues and the life-skills training and opportunities which will be going on in our village.”
Although currently housed at the building site, Friendship Circle “will become a road show again” before the opening of Lifetown. “We will go back to being guests again,” making use of space at local Jewish schools and institutions.
The Grossbaums are busily making connections with institutions in and outside the Jewish community, arranging for public and private school students to enroll in Lifetown’s after-school programs, and offering internships to local high school and college students interested in special-needs education.
Although its services will expand beyond the Jewish community, its food will be kosher, and the building will officially be closed on Saturdays.
Plans call for an art room, a tactile therapy room with a sand floor, a kitchen to be used for job training, and a multi-sensory “Snoezelen” environment featuring touch and aroma therapy for those with developmental disabilities.
The main entrance will have both an elevator and a musical staircase.
A synagogue will be used to teach the Jewish children Judaic life skills, next to a replica of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There will also be an interactive memorial to the children lost in the Holocaust.
An indoor “downtown” will include replica stores, a beauty salon, a bank, a pet shop, and a 50-seat movie theater. “Students can practice life skills in a real space in a comfortable setting. They will have to make an appointment to get their nails done or know when to get to a movie on time, and they will learn job skills,” said Grossbaum.
As she visited the building, Marsha Atkind, executive director of the Healthcare Foundation of NJ, told the Grossbaums, “We have always been interested in helping people with special needs. You started the Friendship Circle as something small that has become so impressive, and we have every confidence that Lifetown is going to be the same way.”