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Chabad of Columbus Opens LifeTown for Developmentally Disabled Children

By , Columbus, Ohio

( Justin Swan has a busy day ahead of him. After getting his annual check-up at the doctor’s office, this developmentally disabled 17 year-old  must make a deposit at the bank, stock up on snacks for his golden retriever, and return books to the library. Only when those errands are complete, can he relax at the cinema with friends.

Fortunately for Swan and 1,000 other developmentally disabled Columbus students, all of their day’s tasks and their hands-on learning are now a convenient one-stop shop.

LifeTown, a division of the Columbus Friendship Circle under the auspices of Chabad of Columbus, opened its doors for business last week. The broad goal of LifeTown, says its director Esther Kaltmann, is for special-needs students to function and be accepted in the general world. The project, which is based on an eponymous program in Michigan, provides disabled 4th-12th grade students with practice living in the real world.

The town’s broad street is flanked by a bank, pet shop, medical center, movie theater, salon, library, and grocery store. Trained volunteers, in role-play positions, man the realistic businesses. When students arrive they withdraw $12 from their bank accounts. Over the next two hours, they decide how to spend the real money.

“They have to make the calculation,” explains Gail Weems, LifeTown’s educational director: “If I go to a movie it will cost $4, popcorn and a drink are another three, what else do I need money for today?”

“Before, teachers needed to make individual field trips to teach varied skills,” says Weems. “Now, they come here for a focused learning experience.”

During their visits, the students must make an appointment for a checkup, where they discuss health, hygiene, and nutrition. Older students learn the nuances of applying for a job, including how to complete an application, dress appropriately, and participate in an interview. Once they are hired, they work as assistants earning minimum wage, $7.20 an hour.

“But they still have time to explore the village,” says Weems. They love the live animals in the pet shop (“are they really real?”); munch on hot popcorn at the movies (where the coming attraction is High School Musical 3); and learn how to safely cross streets (and get ticketed for jaywalking).

For the current scholastic year, the Friendship Circle is renting a vacant public school building from the Columbus School Board for $1. The Friendship Circle received such a great deal because its “services benefit our district’s children,” explains Anne Dorrian-Lenzotti, the district’s director of real estate. Throughout the year, public and private school students with a wide range of disabilities including autism, downs syndrome, and visual impairment, will visit the simulated town once every six weeks.

While it is currently fashionable to assist those with special needs, as highlighted in the recent vice-presidential debate, this was not always the case. Well before it was in vogue, the Lubavitcher Rebbe promoted helping the disabled. In a 1979 letter, the Rebbe emphasized the care needed to ensure that each child, regardless of handicap, realizes his potential.

“For if any child requires an individual evaluation and approach in order to achieve the utmost in his, or her, development, how much more so in the case of the handicapped,” he explained.

Dr. Bernard Maister is a pediatric neurologist who cares for children with developmental disabilities.

 “One of the biggest problems parents of these children face,” he says, “is preparing them for the real world. This program provides the ideal tools to cope with things that non-disabled people deal with as a matter of routine.”

“The response has been tremendous,” Weems says. “Yesterday a few students visited the salon and spa for a hairstyling,” she describes. “When they left, they were looking, and feeling, and acting like a million bucks.”

It takes 200 volunteers to run this town, posing as hairstylists, doctors, bankers, librarians, and police officers, among other roles. “Our volunteers come from the Jewish and general community,” says Kaltmann. “Many band together in synagogues uniting for this special mitzvah.” 


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