Nonprofit Aims To Keep Adults With Autism From Falling Off ‘The Cliff’
ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Corey Mohr wakes up at 6 a.m. each day, brushes his teeth and eats breakfast, which he prepares with his mother’s help. Patty Mohr makes sure he’s dressed before she leaves for work.
“He paces around the house,” Patty Mohr said. “Sometimes he’ll go on the computer, but he doesn’t have anything that will hold his interest. He paces from one end of house to the other.”
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Corey, who lives in Manalapan, is 23 and has autism. He’s verbal, and he can follow directions, but he needs support. For Corey and others like him, there is little to be had outside of the family unit. Many adults with autism fall off “the cliff” after they age out of formal schooling at 21. The adult daytime programs that do exist were shut down by the state during the pandemic.
“You have all these special services, then you hit 21 and it’s over,” Patty Mohr said. “You’re on your own.”
A bold new project seeks to change that. The Monmouth Ocean Foundation for Children, a nonprofit with a track record of helping youth with special needs, is launching The Achieve Academy for Adults with Autism.
Located at Brookdale Community College’s Wall campus, the academy’s goal is to continue the educational experience for those with autism beyond age 21, with speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, job training and coaching of life skills and social skills.
It’s exactly what Corey Mohr needs, his mother said. Right now, it takes the entire Mohr family to look after him each day — Patty, her mother, her husband Charlie and son Dylan do it in shifts. They’re treading water, and so is Corey.
“I am very interested in applying,” Patty said of the academy. “I think it’s wonderful.”
‘Get our autistic adults working’
The cliff was an emerging problem long before the pandemic, as a generation of young adults with autism moved into a post-school world unequipped to help them.
“All of a sudden parents are left to fumble through a confusing maze of, ‘What do I do with my adult who is disabled?'” said Tara Beams, a Monmouth Ocean Foundation for Children board member and veteran educator of those with special needs. “Our goal is to get our autistic adults working. Some of them may be able to independently work at some point. Some of them may be able to work with support, maybe with an aide with them. Some may be able to work part-time but not necessarily full-time because they need other services.”
It’s doable. One shining example is No Limits Café in Middletown, which is staffed almost entirely by adults with special needs. Beams and her colleagues have contacts in various businesses, from Staples to T.J. Maxx, that will provide opportunities to those who are ready.
The Achieve Academy would do the prepping in a rented Brookdale building in Wall. It will have to be renovated to include a kitchen area, appropriate furniture and technology and specific vocational-training rooms.
“Our goal is to raise $5 million for building renovations, staff hires, and also so we can keep costs down, offer some scholarships to low-income families,” Beams said. “We work with Medicaid and the (New Jersey) Department of Health and Human Services to make sure allocations families get when their adults age out can be utilized.”
Nothing’s finalized, but Beams ballparks an annual tuition of roughly $50,000 per year. That would include transportation services.
“You could go to private institutions where you’re paying $100,000 to $150,000,” she said.
The timetable for the academy’s opening is entirely dependent on the fundraising effort. Beams said the inaugural class likely will be 15 to 20 people.
‘A wide gap to close’
Eileen Shaklee sees the cliff in the distance. Her son George is 16, has autism, and is capable of holding a job with the proper support.
“Prior to the COVID pandemic situation he was working,” said Shaklee, a Wall resident. “He was starting with the school program in the community and doing different jobs like Bed, Bath & Beyond and the Monmouth University cafeteria. He absolutely loved it. But because of everything that happened, he hasn’t worked in a year.”
The pandemic ground his and other work programs to a halt. When Eileen Shaklee heard about plans for The Achieve Academy, she was enthused enough to join the fundraising effort.
“My kid is happiest when he’s working, when he’s got a schedule, when he knows what he’s doing next,” Shaklee said. “That’s why this is so critical. There are thousands of kids just like him in New Jersey who need a place like this.”
That’s doubly true after a mostly idle pandemic year has set progress back for George Shaklee, Corey Mohr and many others.
“There’s a wide gap to close,” Eileen Shaklee said. “Hopefully this will help.”
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