Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Colorado Springs center helps young people with disabilities transition into community living

From The Gazette in Colorado Springs. In the picture, Maureen Maroney, who is autistic, sits in the multi-sensory room at the Foundation for Successful Living.

The tidy apartment near Constitution Avenue and Union Boulevard has it all: washer and dryer, stove, microwave and refrigerator, a TV and sitting area, a furnished bedroom and a handicapped-accessible bathroom.

All that’s missing are the 24 teens and young adults expected to occupy it — not as tenants, but as students.

The apartment is one of several real-life teaching rooms at the Foundation for Successful Living, a new center that aims to give autistic and developmentally disabled people ages 14 to 21 the social and vocational tools they’ll need to transition from classrooms into their communities.

At the apartment, the students will learn to do laundry, make a bed, clean, plan meals, cook and keep a budget. In the room with the ersatz bank and post office, they’ll get lessons in handling money, keeping a checkbook and sending mail. The grocery store is where they’ll shop for canned goods and other ingredients for the meals they’ll prepare in the apartment, and the bakery is the place where they’ll practice ordering from a menu, paying for their food, counting change and beefing up their social skills.

“The idea is not that we’re trying to keep them out of the community, but to give a good basis of support so when they go out in the community, they’re more successful,” said executive director Tricia Harris.

But there’s another purpose for the 7,000 square foot building. Harris and the others involved in the new business want the Foundation for Successful Living to be a place where parents and siblings of the students can socialize, do activities together and serve as a support system for each other.

Toward that end, there are meeting rooms, a kids’ gym with swings, a ball pit and other equipment, and a multipurpose room for family movie nights and classes.

“Our whole thing is, we want to create a place not only to support the child, but their parents and siblings because those people often get left out,” Harris said.

Unlike many other programs for autistic and developmentally disabled people, the Foundation for Successful Living is for-profit, funded by investors. Harris said no one wanted to depend on grants and donations in tough economic times, so they’re depending on a demand for their services to make the business fly, and hope to augment income by renting out four treatment rooms to private-practice therapists.

Harris plans to start operations on Sept. 1, and eventually enroll 24 students. A few details, including cost, are being worked out, and Harris said the center is working on being able to accept Medicaid and Tricare.

However, Harris and the center's community liaison, Paula Maroney, have a past to explain to potential clients. In 1996, a jury convicted Maroney of defrauding Medicare and the Colorado workers compensation program when she was owner of a chain of physical therapy clinics in Southern Colorado. She was sentenced to 21 months in a federal prison.

In an agreement with state regulatory officials, Maroney also surrendered her physical therapy license in 1995, records show. The Pueblo Chieftain reported at the time that the action was tied to alleged failure to accurately record treatment and allowing unlicensed workers to treat clients. Harris, one of Maroney's employees at the time, received a letter of admonition from the state, but her license is still active.

Harris notes that actions took place 15 years ago, and said Maroney is not an owner in the new business and is not involved in the billing.

"Paula is the community person; she just helps us go out and get clients," Harris said today.

Harris worries that news of the past will kill the center before it even gets off the ground, and those who work with autistic and developmentally disabled children say Colorado Springs needs more resources to help that population.

“There’s a lot of need,” said Tana Rice, operations manager for the nonprofit Alpine Autism Center in Colorado Springs. “I get calls all the time for help for people over 18, and the parents when they call are so frustrated. There’s just not anything out there for them.”

Barbara Day, executive director for student services in Colorado Springs School District 11, said the district has transitional programs for ages 16 to 21, but said there’s room for more.

“I think Colorado Springs does have limited resources, so any additional resources are welcome,” she said.