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Jacksonville program helps adults with special needs learn to live independently

The program is through The Arc Jacksonville, but there aren't many programs like it in the country.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A program in Jacksonville is helping people with special needs reach their goals for independence.

The program is through The Arc Jacksonville, but there aren't many programs like it in the country.

"They learn independent living skills kind of in like a crash course setting," said Leigh Belmont, educational services director at The Arc Jacksonville.

A dozen adults in The Arc Jacksonville's Summer LIFE Experience Program spend four weeks living in an independent setting doing cooking, laundry and learning about fire safety. There are two four-week sessions, and the last one wraps up this week.

"People in their life will tell them that something is unsafe," said Kii Cash, educational services coordinator for the on-campus transition program. "'It's not safe for you to use the stove, it's not safe for you to cut food up by yourself.' And maybe without some basic skills, it isn't safe, but the purpose of this program is to give them those skills so that they can do those things in a safe way."

The program is open to anyone 18 years old and older, many of whom have the goal of living independently.

"I really, really want to," said Olivia Hillberg, an 18-year-old participant. "I would love to live with roommates."

The participants come from all over the country because there aren't many 24/7 intensive programs like this. That's even though the CDC reports at least one in 54 children is on the autism spectrum and Florida has one of the highest numbers of adults on the autism spectrum. These statistics aren't including other types of special needs, too, although people who have those other special needs are also welcome at the program.

Belmont says part of the reason there aren't many programs like theirs is that there are a lot of logistics involved. It also comes with a price tag. There are scholarships for the Arc Jacksonville program.

"I've noticed a lot of people, this is the first time they're realizing like, 'Wow, I really don't want to live at home for the rest of my life,'" Cash said. "I feel like a lot of the participants here don't feel like they've had that option until they do a program like this where they are out living by themselves."

Efforts are underway in the city of Jacksonville to employ more people with special needs. Mayor Lenny Curry pointed out last week in his budget proposal that the city recently hired five people with special needs, thanks to a campaign with JAX Chamber.

Learn more about the JAX Chamber and Connectable 20 in 20 campaign here.

Learn about The Arc Jacksonville's Summer LIFE Experience Program here.