LIVINGSTON — A coffee shop, bookstore, doctor and dentist’s offices, grocery store, clothing shop, florist, salon, Laundromat, pet shop, home goods store, and hobby shop.
It sounds like the makings of a pretty stellar New Jersey downtown area, and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is. Only, the “LifeTown” development – which broke ground in Livingston Monday evening – will be all enclosed inside a 47,000 square foot state-of-the-art learning center.
The 11,000 square foot mini village inside the new facility is just part of what executives at the Friendship Circle say will be unlike any other in New Jersey.
“It’s going to be an inclusive center,” said LifeTown Executive Director Zalman Grossbaum.
It’s about individuals with special needs interacting with the entire population…(and) the education process really goes both ways.”
Grossbaum and his wife run the MetroWest New Jersey Chapter of the Friendship Circle, an international organization of nonprofits focused on creating programming, and job and life skills training for children and adults with autism and other special needs. The programs are run mostly by teen and adult volunteers, and hinge on the interactions between the diverse populations of people.
LifeTown, Grossbaum said, will build on the work the Friendship Circle has been doing since his chapter was opened in New Jersey in 2000. In addition to the town – all of which will be operational, run by volunteers and working as a real-world way to teach kids and adults life and job skills in actual settings – the building will feature rooms specifically designed to facilitate community interactions.
For example, the half court gym in the complex is not made of typical materials, as the echo created in usual gyms often prohibits kids with autism from participating in sports. This gym will be echo-less.
The facility’s bowling alley will be stripped of the lights and loud music that often create a “sensory overload” for autistic kids, Grossbaum said. It will include a completely accessible playground, an indoor pool with accessible beach entry, and a theater that will put on productions tailored to autistic actors and audience members.
Rooms in the complex, Grossbaum said, are specifically tailored to offer various types of therapies, but in real life settings. As an example, the tactile center is wrapped to look like the Jersey Shore, allowing users to feel sand, water, and other tangible sensations. The entire facility will be wired with technology that will allow it to electronically respond to children’s individual learning plans, which outline their specific needs and learning styles.
Pointing to statistics about the number of special needs students in New Jersey and Essex County, Grossbaum said the unique center is in the perfect place.
“We are literally at the epicenter of the special needs world,” he said. “We have a responsibility and an opportunity to do something transformative.”
Construction, the Friendship Circle estimates, will take about a year to complete. The group has partnered with agencies throughout the state to create and operate it, and so far, has raised about $12 million of the $15 million it will take to build it, Grossbaum said.
LifeTown will be open as a resource to individuals, school groups, other nonprofits, therapy groups, and volunteers. When it is up and running, Grossbaum estimates the facility will be used by about 35,000 people a year.
After about a year planning all of the physical intricacies of the development, Chris Johnson of Hollister Construction – the company that will be building LifeTown – said Grossbaum’s vision will be a game changer.
“I’ve never seen anyone with (Grossbaum’s) emotion and sense of drive,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is going to be all about changing kids’ lives.”
Well over 600 people came to the ground breaking for the Friendship Circle’s LifeTown in Livingston on June 6. Outside the building on Microlab Road, children, teens, and adults filled the folding chairs for the official ceremony, although the younger kids much preferred the bouncy houses, the truck they could climb on and explore, and the troughs where cement was ready for them to mix with pint-sized shovels.
LifeTown will take shape at the site of the Friendship Circle’s current home, much expanded and enhanced.
During construction — expected to begin this summer and take about one year — Friendship Circle will move into temporary offices elsewhere in Livingston and turn to area synagogues and organizations to host its events.
When completed, LifeTown will include recreational, therapeutic, and educational facilities for people with special needs. Its centerpiece will be Life Village, an 11,000-square-foot simulated town center that will offer clients an opportunity to practice real-world skills in a controlled environment as they visit a doctor’s office, shop in a bookstore, and go to the park, for example.
LifeTown will also include an aquatics center with a zero-entry pool; a giant water table and water-activity room; an accessible bowling alley; a gymnasium equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceiling, enabling individuals with sensory overload to participate in sports; a youth center with an early childhood section, a dance and music studio, and a birthday party area; and separate lounges for parents and volunteers.
Speaking at the June 6 festivities, Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, founder and director of the Friendship Circle, said, “As we break ground today, we are not creating a building, we are creating a movement, one that is steeped in history but with an eye to a bright future. It will be an incubator for our mission of ‘Love your fellow as yourself,’ creating a truly integrated world, with equal possibilities for everyone. In so many ways, the journey is just beginning.”
He invited all the Friendship Circle clients in attendance to help “lay the cornerstone” for the new facility. Each child or teen was given the opportunity to hold a large stone selected for the occasion. Together they then “laid” it on the ground. Afterward, major funders and volunteers participated in the symbolic “ground breaking,” using ceremonial shovels and hardhats.
The Friendship Circle, begun in Livingston 16 years ago, offers activities and programs for children and teens with special needs and connects teen volunteers with children with special needs and their families to provide support, respite, and friendships. The Friendship Circle and LifeTown, projects of Chabad, were both created in West Bloomfield, Mich. — the Friendship Circle in 1994 and LifeTown in 2004. There are now 79 Friendship Circles around the world (with six in New Jersey). Replications and adaptations of LifeTown are in their infancy. One in Columbus, Ohio, was the second one built, offering only the Life Village. Livingston’s LifeTown is the third. At a total of 47,000 square feet, it is almost twice the size of the Michigan LifeTown, which has a campus of 25,000 square feet. According to Livingston Friendship Circle communications director Faygie Holt, that’s because the local need is much greater than it is in Detroit or Columbus; it is anticipated that 35,000 people, including school groups, students, families, and both teen and adult volunteers, will use the facility annually.
The Livingston center will also be equipped with technology that will enable visitors to focus on the particular skills they are learning, based on their individualized education program, as they make their way through LifeTown.
By the time of the ground breaking, over $12 million had been raised toward LifeTown Livingston, which is expected to cost a total of $14.5 million. Planning for the project began four years ago.
Heidi Rome of Livingston said she “wouldn’t miss” the “historic” occasion. She attended the ground breaking with her husband, Steven, and their two sons, Eric, 13, and Ethan, 10. Ethan has autism and has benefited, she said, over the years from Friendship Circle programming.
Rome said that what she loves about the LifeTown blueprint is that kids like Ethan will be able to “find what they need to learn social, academic, and life skills, all in one place.”
But it’s the attitude of Grossbaum and his wife, Toba, that Rome most appreciates. During her first encounters with them following Ethan’s diagnosis, she met with Toba to sign him up for Friendship Circle activities. Rome recalled, “I thanked her, and said, ‘How wonderful that you’re doing this.’ And she said, ‘Oh no…, thank you. It’s our honor.’
“I was astounded,” said Rome, adding that that attitude was in stark contrast to what she had experienced with Ethan outside the Friendship Circle, which was “judgment. There’s running away. There’s isolation. There’s all kinds of stuff that come with special needs.”
She concluded that her family doesn’t find “the love and acceptance [of the Friendship Circle] anywhere else.”
For children with special needs and their families, the simplest things can be indescribably challenging: visiting the dentist, getting a haircut, making a friend. To help those families and individuals in and around Essex County, N.J., a transformational new facility called LifeTown is on the way.
The 47,000-square-foot, two-story LifeTown facility comes under the auspices of Friendship Circle, a Chabad-Lubavitch-sponsored organization that provides a variety of respite, social and recreational programs for children and teens with special needs and their families. At the core of Friendship Circle’s programs are the hundreds of teen volunteers who spend time playing with and getting to know those with special needs. LifeTown will provide an inclusive setting for Friendship Circle programs, as well as offer a multitude of services, opportunities and activities for people of all ages and abilities.
The community celebrated its groundbreaking on Monday evening with 800 people gathering as Friendship Circle families laid the cornerstone of the new center. The event was marked with activities for families, speeches and the chance to help pour cement for the new building.
For 27-year-old Avi, who was one of the first Friendship Circle kids when it began in 2001 and who now serves as a volunteer, LifeTown is a dream come true. He is particularly excited, he says, for the opportunities the center will provide, especially job-training, life-skills knowledge and social experiences.
According to Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, director of Friendship Circle of MetroWest New Jersey with his wife, Toba, bringing people with and without special needs together is a key component of the project.
“An important part of the mindset is that we see LifeTown as a means to an end—an incubator for creating true integration,” says Rabbi Grossbaum. “It creates an environment where people experience life with individuals with special needs so they will go out into the world and create inclusive environments.”
At the heart of LifeTown is “Life Village,” a simulated main street with traffic lights, a park, sidewalks and 16 different shops. Real-world settings such as a dental office will help participants practice life skills in a safe and controlled environment to better prepare them for independent living. A theater-arts program will provide a venue for participants to develop self-expression and increase self-esteem.
The many recreational, therapeutic and educational facilities in the LifeTown building include:
- A therapeutic activity wing where therapists can work with children on specific motor or functional skills in a play- and learning-filled environment;
- A working theater with 45 seats and six additional wheelchair-accessible spaces;
- An aquatic center with zero-entry pool and giant water table where individuals with special needs can work on skills and independence amid the soothing power of water;
- A gym with sound-absorbent floors and walls that eliminates echoes and allows individuals who are hypersensitive to sound to participate in sports programs;
- A real pet shop with more than 30 animals;
- An interactive musical staircase with 23 risers;
- An indoor sensory park and playground designed to mimic a natural park;
- 45 zones where participants can participate in therapy and practice life skills;
- A teen lounge that will serve as a space where volunteers can gather, do homework and participate in training programs.
Readying for the Real World
One of the most exciting components, according to Grossbaum, is a cutting-edge educational software platform called Oneder, specifically designed for LifeTown by a local technology company. This program will take students’ IEPs (Individualized Educational Program), and create interactive modules that will prompt the students to apply their newly acquired skills in the real-world setting of Life Village. The technology will also allow for real-time feedback and tracking for schools, teachers and parents, as well as for educational research purposes.
“Coming to Lifetown will be more than an educational field trip; it will be a core part of the students’ curriculum,” says the rabbi. “From a research perspective, there will be tremendous data from the back end on learning skills, practicing them and then applying them in the real world.”
The families involved with Friendship Circle are looking forward to the completion of LifeTown and the many opportunities it will provide for their children and the community at large. Hal and Susan Sass of Livingston, N.J., have two children: a 17-year-old daughter with special needs who has been involved with Friendship Circle since the age of 3; and an 11-year-old son who also participates in various programs.
“My daughter has practically grown up there,” says Hal Sass. “It’s exciting to imagine what LifeTown will be like when it’s done. You know it’s going to be first-rate.”
‘Everything Has Come Together’
The facility will cost about $14.5 million and should take approximately one year to complete. The idea was conceived several years ago, inspired by the Ferber Kaufman LifeTown building and Weinberg Village built by Friendship Circle of Michigan in 2005, which the Grossbaums visited for ideas and encouragement.
“It’s been in the works for a while,” says Rabbi Grossbaum. “It was a matter of finding the right time, the right opportunity. Finally, everything has come together.”
He says there has been “tremendous energy” about the project throughout the community. Connections have been made with local companies that are planning to have employee volunteer days there. Area schools such as The Children’s Institute—for children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disabilities—will use the building on a regular basis, and local institutions of higher education have been discussing ways to incorporate LifeTown internships into their curriculum. It is estimated that LifeTown will utilize more than 2,300 volunteers—1,500 teens and 800 adults—and serve at least 35,000 participants each year.
“It’s an exciting dream that needed to become a reality,” says Ettinger, adding that some students from the school already participate in various Friendship Circle programs. “With a bowling alley, theater and the opportunity to practice actual daily-life skills, LifeTown will expand and enrich our programming. It’s also a wonderful way for the volunteers to become more sensitive to people with special needs.”
The need for such a facility is especially pressing in New Jersey, which claims the highest rate of autism in the country. The largest population is in Essex County, which Grossbaum describes as “the epicenter of the special-needs world.” Approximately 10,000 children and more than 54,000 adults with special needs reside in Essex County, while the four-county region encompassing Passaic, Union, Essex and Morris counties has more than 19,000 children and 109,000 adults with disabilities.
Some of the major donors for the project include Seryl and Charles Kushner, and Paula and Jerry Gottesman. According to Grossbaum, both of those families have been involved with Friendship Circle for many years and recognized the benefits that the LifeTown facility would provide. The indoor park was funded by a $500,000 grant from the HealthCare Foundation of New Jersey. There have also been numerous contributions from individuals and businesses throughout the community.
‘A Model of Inclusivity’
Many of the contributors were honored during the groundbreaking.
Addressing the crowd on Monday evening, Paula Gottesman said that four years ago, she and her husband had never even heard of LifeTown. But after learning about it from the Kushners, she stated that “our lives haven’t been the same since. … It’s a project we are honored to be a part of.”
Ann Leeb, whose 9-year-old daughter Mora has special needs, spoke on behalf of not only her own family, but all Friendship Circle families. Noting that the word “inclusive” has in it two very basic words: ‘in’ and ‘us’ Leeb said: “It is in us, in all of us, to work together to make LifeTown a model of inclusivity for all the world to see and aspire to.”
Already, people in other parts of the country and even beyond are taking notice and eager to see LifeTown succeed—and not just as a place for people with special needs.
“Our goal is that in five or 10 years, when people talk about LifeTown, they won’t be considering it a special-needs facility,” emphasizes Grossbaum. “It will be a place where everybody comes together to celebrate their unique abilities.”