Highland Park High School students with special needs can remain enrolled in the Life Skills program until the age of 22. Then what? To hear JoAnn Ryan tell it, it would be ideal if there was a place exactly like the Life Skills classroom at HPHS.
“That means it’s all-inclusive,” said Ryan, who has a 24-year-old son, Ryan Albers, whom she describes as 100 percent disabled. “There are people with all levels of disabilities in one place. The more abled are benefiting from helping those less abled. It works for everyone.”
But Ryan has been unable to find such a place that’s convenient for families who live in Highland Park and University Park. So she and a handful of other parents are creating one. They have formed a nonprofit called Connecting Point of Park Cities with the intention of offering fulfilling day programs for their adult children and others like them.
“One of the reasons we chose the name Connecting Point is that we’re really hoping to have everybody out and about in the community,” board member Sarah Oliai said. “Everyone’s going to participate on their own level. Whatever their ability is, they’re going to be along for the ride on their level.”
Connecting Point would like to start offering programs this fall, but Oliai said that depends on fundraising. She estimates they need $200,000 to hire key staff plus another $100,000 to open the doors. A big expense will be a bus equipped with a wheelchair lift.
One expense the board won’t have to worry about is rent. The Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle, which is on the corner of Inwood Road and Mockingbird Lane, is donating the use of a pair of classrooms, a kitchen, and a garden.
“That was like a Godsend,” said Nancy Himes, whose daughter, Emily, has one more year in the Life Skills program. “We called all kinds of churches … but it never clicked with any of them. But this particular church said yes.”
The Rev. Anna Neitzel, a deacon who heads the church’s outreach efforts, said it hosts meetings for secular groups, such as the League of Women Voters, but Connecting Point will be on a completely different scale.
“This is the biggest thing we ever attempted,” said Neitzel, a University Park resident. “We just want to open up our church to the community.”
Ryan, who has “just been overwhelmed by the graciousness of this church,” knows the value of community. She’s had to put her son, who suffered a severe brain injury while skiing, in some pretty sterile environments, where the only available stimulation was a TV.
“He just glazes over,” she said. “He stares at the ceiling, and he’s just tuned out completely. And with a brain injury, that’s the last thing you want.”
The Life Skills classroom, on the other hand, was a different story. When he was surrounded by conversation, music, and art, Ryan said, her son was alert, active, and responsive.
Speaking of responsive, Ryan said the board has received letters with phrases such as “long overdue” and “much needed” since efforts to publicize Connecting Point began. Those letters often come with checks. But those donations will take time to add up to the needed $300,000, Himes said, so she and the other board members are hoping to find a generous benefactor with a big checkbook.
“I just don’t think it’s so much out of pocket for someone who has a big heart,” Himes said.