Go to the bank, stop by the grocery store, have a seat in the movie theater or swing by the pet store to visit the hamsters.
It’s a typical day downtown, but this town can’t be found on the streets of any New Jersey city. It’s all in LifeTown, an indoor downtown replica created to teach children and young adults with special needs how to navigate the everyday world.
The multimillion-dollar project will be launching on Sept. 9 with a grand opening ceremony for the public, at the LifeTown building in Livingston.
The Life Village is the downtown replica that's at the center of LifeTown’s 53,000-square-foot building. It provides a safe and controlled environment for children and young adults to work on life skills in a more realistic setting.
“What we want to do is create a space where it's easy for those with special needs and the wider outside community to interact and learn from each other,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, executive director of Friendship Circle.
Located inside a former warehouse in Livingston, LifeTown has been a decade-long project put together by Friendship Circle, a non-profit organization focused on providing children and teens with special needs real-life experiences while offering support and respite to their families.
While Friendship Circle does offer Judaic programming, LifeTown is a separate entity with nonreligious activities.
The village has what is commonly referred to as “the Disney effect” by transporting everyone who walks into the hyper-realistic downtown, complete with 15 fully functioning storefronts, a central street to ride bikes and pedal cars on and tree-lined sidewalks.
Volunteers play the role of shopkeepers and help teach the students about budgeting and money management. Teens can buy real bags of chips and popcorn at the grocery store, or treat themselves to a manicure at the salon. If their funds are running low students can spend time earning money at the laundromat or by cleaning up after the birds or the hamsters in the pet shop.
“What we really want is the interaction between the larger community and the special needs community, so that everyone is learning from each other,” Grossbaum said.
The children and teens can also test out spaces that are often unnerving for people with sensory issues, like the doctor’s and the dentist’s office. Here students can look at and feel the tools they might come in contact with, reducing the nerves they might have at a real check-up.
“The kids are great and the other volunteers are great and it's just a pleasant experience,” said Bob Gray who has been volunteering with Friendship Circle since 2006. “You see the whole world differently, and learn to appreciate the little things in a person's life.”
Gray said he has been able to see many children and young adults progress in skills and interactions with outsiders over the years and is glad that a place like LifeTown exists to give those with special needs a place to socialize.
“Every time I’m in here I’m blown away because this used to be a vacant factory,” said Michael Karp, whose son Sam is in a wheelchair and is unable to verbally communicate. “I love this place. It's just opened up a world for families and kids like my kid. He’s never really had close friends until Friendship Circle came around and it's just enabled him to have all these relationships with other kids and other people and experience all these different activities.”
Sometimes it is the simplest things that matter, for people like 25-year-old Hannah Solomon who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. Her chair fits perfectly underneath the table at the florist shop making it easier for her to work on her project.
“I love the fact that you could have the typical kids working with the special kids and it's home for everybody. Everybody walks in here and it's amazing they can find something for themselves,” said Lori Solomon, Hannah’s mother.
“It’s all about giving them meaningful experiences, teaching them life skills and hopefully doing a project they can go home with,” Grossbaum said.
Information about becoming a volunteer can be found on the LifeTown website. The village will be available for school groups but is not open to the general public outside of special events.
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