New special needs center will feel like an N.J. downtown

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.”