Road Safety Speeds Up at LifeTown

Gift from Lithia Motors and DCH Audi Millburn enhances pedestrian-safety curriculum

For individuals with special needs finding a safe and comforting locale to learn and practice pedestrian safety can be a challenge. Many roads are too busy. Many drivers to impatient and the noise levels can be distracting.

In fact, just last year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation authorizing the state’s Department of Transportation to upgrade its own Complete Streets policies and projects to allow “persons diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities to travel independently.”

This need is particularly acute in the Garden State as New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the creators of LifeTown, a fully inclusive, 53,000-sq.-ft. educational, social and recreational center in Northern New Jersey for individuals with special needs, set about building their center, they recognized this need and created an indoor roadway with stop signs and a cross walk as part of their indoor “Main Street.”  

It found a partner in DCH Audi Millburn, which likewise recognized the importance of having a welcoming and safe space for kids to learn road-safety skills.

Now the two groups, along with DCH Audi Millburn’s parent company Lithia Motors, have teamed up again to make enhancements to the road and the pedestrian-safety skills curriculum at LifeTown. Thanks to a generous gift from Lithia and DCH, LifeTown was able to make much needed upgrades including new electronic traffic and crosswalk signals.

Northeast Regional Vice President of Lithia and DCH Audi Millburn Brian Lam got to see the road and its improvements in action earlier this month during a visit to LifeTown, in recognition of National Disability Awareness Month.

“With New Jersey being the epicenter of autism in the United States, this really satisfies a need for these individuals and their families,” said Lam. “This is fantastic. It adds such benefit to the community.”

With thousands of children and teens with special needs visiting LifeTown each month with their schools, making upgrades to the pedestrian-safety program was seen as a vital next step in LifeTown’s educational program.

“LifeTown has been open for a few years now, and we are seeing in the real impact that it is having. Teachers and therapists are letting us know what works well and what can be enhanced to further improve the educational components of the LifeTown Shoppes,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of LifeTown. “One of the requests we received was to bring in electronic crossing signals, thanks to DCH Audi Millburn and Lithia, we were able to do just that.”

As part of the pedestrian-safety training, children are able to ride a bike in the street or walk around the sidewalks, and must learn to adhere to the signs, the streetlights and the follow the directions of a crossing guard.

As Lithia and DCH Audi Millburn employees saw during their visit, teachers follow along with the students especially during their first “lap” around town, and ensure they understand the rules of the road. When one young visitor tried to walk against the traffic light, his teacher was quick to point out the light was red and reminded him that meant he couldn’t walk across the street. Another child was “stopped” when her bike attempted to ride over the crosswalk even as the crossing guard held up a “Stop” sign.

The pedestrian-safety program is just one element of the educational program at LifeTown. Schools from across the tristate region and beyond bring students to the center where they are able to practice time management, money management, social skills, and more, in a supportive, welcoming environment.

This environment is made possible thanks to corporate and local sponsors. In addition to DCH Audi Millburn and Lithia Motors those sponsors include the National Football League (NFL), the New York Jets, ShopRite supermarkets and RWJ Barnabas Health. Not only have these companies invested financially, their staff have volunteered at LifeTown. Such efforts are particularly meaningful to the families of individuals with special needs as it shows the community is cares about them and is working toward a more inclusive world.

Each school visit starts at the “bank” inside LifeTown, where youngsters are given $12 to spend in the LifeTown Shoppes. It is a simulated real world with caring volunteers and staff who ensure that each child has a positive experience while learning.

“When children come to LifeTown they are fully engaged and having fun,” says Grossbaum. “They don’t realize that they are gaining real-world skills while they shop, walk or bike.”

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