Real Life, Real Skills, Open Shoppes

Emerging from the beauty parlor with a new hairdo and freshly painted nails, Alexandra and her friend Olivia headed to the pet shop. “Oh my gosh, this has been fantastic,” said Alexandra’s mother, Andrea Porcaro from Haworth. “It’s so cool that they get to have a real-life experience here–even a beauty parlor!”

She was thrilled that in addition to planting flowers and making t-shirts, Alexandra had written, addressed, and mailed a postcard, something she had never done before. “It’s all of the things you need to learn, even realizing you have to budget sometimes, all in an exceptional learning environment where they can do everything themselves, independently,” said Porcaro. “I’ve been waiting and watching for an open day at LifeTown!”

Days off present extra challenges for families with kids with special needs. As Lauren Bergner who came from Woodridge with her son Brody said, “Something to do on a day off from school in a safe non-judgmental space–that’s very hard to find in the special needs community.”  

So, LifeTown Shoppes held an open-to-the-public day on Friday, November 10, and parents came from all over New Jersey. Their children navigated the life size downtown, managing budgets, interacting with salespeople, visiting doctor’s offices, and following traffic signs. The first stop for all participants was the LifeTown Shoppes bank, where they interact with the first shopkeeper and withdraw money to budget and spend during their visit.

Brody was particularly happy spending time with Goldie, the therapy dog, in the pet store, where he rubbed her belly and she happily received his love.

“There are so few places where you’re not the only one just managing your kid,” said Mike Sherman of South Orange, whose son, Richie, took advantage of one of the day’s most popular activities, pedaling on bicycles around the street in the center of town, learning to stop for the red lights and crosswalks.

Esther Diaz offered encouragement to her son as he was waiting patiently at a red light (“Green light; go, Bud!”). While he was having fun, she saw the many layers of LifeTown at work. “The skills he’s learning here fall in line with what we are working on at home, including social skills and math,” said Diaz. 

“They’re having fun but I see they are learning, paying for stuff on their own, and interacting with the shopkeepers,” said Jasmine Tamakloe, who came with her daughter Camille, 21 and a group of parents and kids from Randolph. While their children have come before with their schools, it was a first for many of the parents. 

At the bank, Sruli was signing the withdrawal slip as his mother stood nearby. Goldie the dog had been instrumental in helping Sruli make the decision to come inside the building, and up the stairs. Later, holding Goldie’s leash, Sruli was able to exit the ball pit and come to the bank.

Noticing how seamlessly volunteers had found exactly how to inspire Sruli, Jackie Collier, who came with her grandson Travis, said, “Whatever it takes!” Volunteer Erica Gendler who brought Goldie responded, “That’s exactly what we do here: Whatever it takes.” 

Visibly grateful, Sruli’s mother said, “This place is amazing. They really get the children’s needs and what works for them.” 

Relaxing on a bench just outside the shoppes after a busy morning, Amy Hanlon and her two children were enjoying some downtime with books and ice cream. “Nothing is crowded or stressful. There are no time limits, and everyone is understanding. Everything is set up for them to succeed here.”

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