NEW ALBANY, Ohio — Kierra Saunders had already been to the bank twice to replenish her funds after decorating a tote bag for her sister, visiting the pet shop and buying herself a trinket in another store.

After that whirlwind, the 15-year-old from Columbus Alternative High School grinned as she relaxed with a red snow cone in the town center.

Kierra, who has a developmental disability, had navigated the nuances of LifeTown Columbus with help and advice from her volunteer mentor, Brandi Burch.

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LifeTown, located in the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center, is a simulated streetscape intended to make everyday life less intimidating for young people with disabilities.

“Every single venue is literally another life skill being learned,” said Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann. Kids learn time management at the movie theater, dining etiquette at the deli, proper grooming in the salon, preventive health care in the doctor’s office, and budgeting and saving at the bank.

On a recent Wednesday, the town buzzed with 56 students, their teachers and aides, and the 20 volunteers running the storefronts.

Kaltmann and his wife, Esther, have led the program since it began eight years ago. The town operates every weekday morning when school is in. Thirteen Columbus-area school districts now send 2,500 students per year.

When the kids arrive for their monthly visit, they receive wallets, $12 and a worksheet of errands to run. Each worksheet is customized to the student’s skill level and the lesson plan that the teacher and LifeTown worked out in advance.

Volunteer Matt Bores ran the movie theater, showing a short film every 20 minutes and selling the moviegoers candy and popcorn.

“It just seems like my little contribution,” said Bores, a local guitar teacher.

New this year at LifeTown is a one-on-one mentoring program, paid for with a $90,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Education called Community Connectors, which the program won this year. The goal is to help older students with mild to moderate disabilities move smoothly from school to the work world.

Ninety-four students have been paired with 86 adult mentors, all of whom have been recruited since early July.

These students benefit from forming a relationship with an adult who can be a role model to encourage and support them, said volunteer coordinator Nancy Eisenman.

“These kids don’t really meet a lot of other adults outside of their families,” she said.

To keep the mentorship program growing and the town running every day requires a constant supply of outside help — about 20 volunteers a day. Beyond the 86 mentors, LifeTown has a bank of 800 volunteers.

Corporations including L Brands, DSW, Cardinal Health, Wendy’s and Nationwide Insurance regularly send teams of employees to help.

“It’s a benefit for the community that (these corporate workers) are getting exposed … to young people with disabilities, when they typically may not have had that exposure,” Eisenman said. “And long term, those companies may be more inclined to hire” people with disabilities.

It can benefit the employers, too. Studies have shown that “employees who volunteer as part of their duties, they stay longer, and they report that they’re happier at their positions,” Eisenman said.

© 2015 The Columbus Dispatch
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