LifeTown (Livingston, NJ)

LifeTown
10 Microlab Rd, Livingston, NJ 07039
(973) 251-0200
https://www.lifetown.com/
founder/director: Rabbi Zalman and Toba Grossbaum: Faygie Levy-director of communications
Zalman@fcnj.com

“53,000 square foot complex which provides recreational, educational,
therapeutic and social opportunities for children, teens and adults with disabilities, their families and the larger community. The centerpiece of Life Town, known as the “Life Village,” an 11,000 square foot village, where people with disabilities gain real-world experiences such as withdrawing money from a bank, budgeting, crossing the street, making basic purchases, going to a doctor or dentist, andworking. Some of the many community partners, where participants gain shopping and working experience include ShopRite, RWJ Barnabas Health, Jeff and Charlie’s Pet Shop, Sarah Jane Florals, Team Gear Clothing, Ahuva’s Art and Hobby and Village Copy Center.”

Howard Blas’ Chabad.org article:
https://howardblas.com/2019/08/26/it-takes-a-lifetown-n-j-project-a-model-for-inclusive-community-building/

Background/My Visit:

When I was visiting Soul Café and Soul Center in Detroit, MI as part of this project, my hosts suggested I also visit LifeTown Detroit. I was impressed with the Friendship Circle building upstairs and LifeTown downstairs. When I shared just how impressed I was, I was told, “Just wait—this is nothing! Wait til you see the new LifeTown being built in Livingston, NJ!” I
therefore made plans to visit. At the time of the visit, LifeTown was a work in progress—a construction site a few weeks away from completion. Rabbi Grossbaum and Faygie Levy, the director of communications, spent several hours patiently, carefully and enthusiastically explaining every room of the new complex. They noted that New Jersey and this county in particular have (according to the CDC) the highest rates of autism in the country. There has been great enthusiasm for an “all under one roof” multi service center where families can receive therapies, participate in recreational programs, swim, play flag football, attend Shabbatons and family workshops, and learn and practice life and vocational training skills in Village. There is great excitement from nearby schools and school districts as well as from
various departments at Rutgers University. All see great potential for collaboration and training. As of December, 2018, the building had received its certificate of occupancy and had begun offering programs and activities on a limited basis. They will gradually move to full operation.

Overview:

A 53,000 square-foot complex in Livingston, New Jersey, known as Life Town which provides recreational, educational, therapeutic and social opportunities for children, teens and adults with disabilities, their families and the larger community.
Grossbaum, CEO and founder, is quick to point out that Life Town was built with an awareness that “New Jersey, especially northern New Jersey, is the epi-center of the autism world. According to the CDC, we have the highest concentration in the US of people with autism.” Grossbaum continues, “The goal of Life Town is to make the world a more welcoming place, integrating people with special needs in to daily life. Life Town is a model for people with special needs and all kids—when they play together on the playground, for example, they naturally come together and don’t notice differences.” Life Town will host all of the Friendship Circle programs, where teen volunteers and people with disabilities regularly participate in
inclusive programming.
Perhaps the most striking features of Life Town is its extensive programming and attention to detail. Each room, hallway, program and activity strives to meet the wide range of current and anticipated future needs of the various communities it will serve. Participants will gain valuable social, interpersonal and recreational experience through activities in the aquatic center including a zero-entry pool, giant water table and water-activity room; a therapeutic activity wing, designed to mimic a natural park and beach setting, includes specialized activity rooms,
indoor and outdoor playgrounds and more; a sensory wall with panels for engaging and exploring through the various senses; a Snoezelen room offers a controlled multi-sensory, therapeutic environment; a gymnasium for recreational activities and sports leagues, including basketball,volleyball and tennis—even a three lane bowling alley! The gym is equipped with sound-absorbent walls and ceiling enabling individuals with sensory issues to more easily participate in sports. And the 2,500 square foot youth center house the early childhood center, dance and music Studio, and birthday center.

The centerpiece of Life Town, known as the “Life Village,” is a simulated, town square with streets, traffic lights, a park, sidewalks and shops. Participants gain valuable independent living skills as they navigate the 11,000 square foot village. The real-world experiences of the village
reinforce classroom skills learned on such topics as budgeting, problem solving and time management.
Participants begin their visit by withdrawing money from Regal Bank. They walk and travel in mini Audi cars (from DCH Millburn Audi) and learn to follow crosswalks and traffic signals. They then have opportunities to visit sometimes hard-to-navigate, sensory overloaded places as a movie theater (free popcorn!), doctor and dental offices, grocery store, pet shop, book store, hair salon and a pet shop. Some of the many community partners include ShopRite, RWJ Barnabas Health, Jeff and Charlie’s Pet Shop, Sarah Jane Florals, Team Gear Clothing, Ahuva’s Art and Hobby and Village Copy Center.
Participants also obtain real-world job training through such in-village work opportunities as stocking shelves in the grocery store, serving snacks, making copies and laundering towels at the Wash and Fold, for use in the aquatic center. Grossbaum proudly points, out, “Every job is a real job with an end purpose (“no packing and unpacking”)-maintenance, office, etc. Parents are welcome to can browse in the Words Bookstore (founded by the parent of a child with autism, with a larger branch in Maplewood), sip a cup of coffee, have a business meeting, or socialize with other parents.
The LifeTown experience extends to the hallways and corridors, where thoughtful planning decisions included providing soothing, interactive music, large windows with natural light, and colorful stripes on the walls and floors, leading participants from the map to a specific room.
Even the colors were chosen in consultant with experts in the field. Grossbaum notes, “The colors are primary but not childish and chosen to not be triggers for people with autism.” Once at a given room, the stripes “come to life” with a decorative design that indicates which activities can be found in that space.

The hallway itself and various alcoves feature many thoughtful, meaningful touches. A living memorial which strives to teach visitors about the bravery, devotion and faith of the 1.2 million children who died during the Holocaust. Visitors can “pledge” to do a mitzvah in memory of a child who was killed. A nearby alphabet wall teaches the alphabet in such languages as Braille, ASL, English, Hebrew and Mandarin and to demonstrate how we all communicate the same message but in different forms and modes of communication.
Friendship Circle and Life Town participants will create a collage made of tiles intended to create a message of hope. They will also create additional interchangeable art displays.
Other special rooms include a parents’ lounge, a volunteer lounge, an easily divided multi- purpose room for classes, lectures, and after-school programs, and a synagogue with a “real Kotel” which, in conjunction with a nearby hotel, will allow Life Town to offer Shabbatons and family educational weekends.

Lessons Learned/Challenges/Advice:

-it is possible to begin making the world a more welcoming place through providing natural experiences for people with and without disabilities to interact.
-Experiences in childhood and early adulthood with disabilities sometimes leads to pursuing careers in such fields as OT, PT and speech and language therapy.
-provide jobs which are “real” and have an end purpose (“no packing then unpacking”) i.e. maintenance, office work, laundry, making copies.
-it is important to create a sense of community for everyone—participants, siblings, volunteers, parents and the community—offering a wide range of activities and flexible spaces helps achieve this goal.

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