With an eye on tomorrow, the Green Oaks School in Arlington is growing today to help educate students with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.
And, with the help of a jump start from the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation, the school is preparing to expand with the addition of a Prep Life Academy that will help post-secondary students learn life and job skills that will place them on a path to independence.
“For so many families, this was the missing piece,” Green Oaks Executive Director Jean Jewell said.
The estimated cost of the project is $5.5 million, Jewell said, adding that $1.73 million has been raised so far. Arlington Tomorrow helped move things along with a $1 million grant.
Jewell noted that research has shown that the life expectancy for people with intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades, from 25 years of age in 1983 to 60 today. Where a parent or guardian was once expected to outlive their child, parents are now faced with the reality of having to plan for the care and financial future of their adult child long after their own passing.
“Research indicates that when offered quality educational programs, a stimulating home environment, good health care and positive support, individuals with intellectual disabilities are known to lead fulfilling and productive lives,” Jewell said. “They attend school, work, and participate in decisions that affect them, have relationships, vote and contribute to society in many meaningful ways.
“However, there are few quality educational options available in the United States that properly prepare young adults with intellectual disabilities with the skills to acquire competitive employment, or the experience and confidence to live as independently as possible in their community.”
Green Oaks Life Prep will be a three-year intensive training program focused on independent living skills, skill-based training in the hospitality and horticulture industries and applied learning through internships. Through the four pillars of learning, students will develop personalized independence, receive specific vocational training leading to competitive employment, grow in faith, and become contributing members of an inclusive community.
“All of us at the Arlington Tomorrow Foundation are delighted to help the Green Oaks School expand their mission,” said Carolyn Mentesana, executive director of Arlington Tomorrow. “It’s our hope that our donation for the construction of dormitory space provides a portion of the vital financial support necessary to get the plan off the ground and make it a reality for families searching for this unique opportunity.
“Given the Green Oaks Life Prep Academy is only the second of its kind available in the United States, we recognize this special project could become a calling card for Arlington. After all, what better place for a project that combines training in the hospitality field and innovative education programming than a city that has a legacy as an entertainment city and a college town?”
Green Oaks opened in 2000 with just four students, but outgrew that first facility in three years. Today it has an enrollment of 108 individuals in both Green Oaks School and Green Oaks Adult Learning. They do not divide the classes by traditional grades. Currently, the youngest Green Oaks School student is 7 years old and the oldest Green Oaks Adult Learning participant is 56. They accept students as young as 5 and do not have an upper age limit.
“For the students, now is the time to create a substantial post-secondary education program that will allow young adults to fulfill the goal of becoming appropriately self-sufficient and independent while building skills for a successful career path,” Jewell said.
Green Oaks Life Prep will have two distinct and progressively independent living environments. Each is designed to build the skills necessary for students to achieve independence at a level that is appropriate for them.
For students in years one and two, a 16,000 square feet dormitory — or “living classroom” — capable of accommodating up to 48 students will be built. In year three, students will move to the adjacent apartment complex, which Green Oaks purchased, and will renovate as part of this project. The apartment complex will allow up to 18 third-year students and a resident supervisor.
“Cayti has wanted to be a college student forever,” said her father, Chuck Crook, about his 22-year-old daughter who has been a Green Oaks student since age 7. “This opens up a whole new chapter in her life and the lives of all of the students. We are all thrilled by the possibilities.”
Jewell’s own adult daughter, 29-year-old Kristin, has Down Syndrome, and Jewell said this is the missing step to her independence.
“I am so excited by the possibilities that will open up to her,” Jewell said.
Jewell said they anticipate opening Green Oaks Life Prep in August 2020, though that timeline significantly depends on the pace of fundraising and construction. Their aim is to begin construction in the spring/summer of 2019. To achieve this, they must raise $1.8 million in order to cover the capital costs of the full project within that time frame. Jewell said the school has embarked on a comprehensive project that includes capital construction and renovations, property acquisition and program development for which they are actively fundraising.
Beyond philanthropic gifts, Green Oaks Life Prep will offer off-site internships with local businesses.
“Our programs are actively seeking corporate partners and volunteers to ensure Green Oaks Life Prep graduates are connected, contributing, vibrant members of our community,” she said.
Horticulture and culinary arts/hospitality will be the two subjects of professional focus. The program after which they are modeling Green Oaks Life Prep (Shepherds College in Wisconsin) offers those courses for two of their programs, Jewell said, noting that after a decade 78 percent of those students were placed in career positions in their area of study.
“Our family is beyond excited about the opportunities that are possible for our Lindsey because of the Green Oaks Life Prep program,” said Kim Marshall, mother of Lindsey Marshall, age 31, a Green Oaks adult student. “Her dreams for independence and a real job are about to come true!”