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.”