Living Independently: First Place Transition Academy, Operated by SARRC, Helps That Become a Reality for Those on the Autism Spectrum

Transition Academy student, Lindsey Eaton, looks forward to graduating from the two-year program in May.

It’s Monday at 8 a.m., which means that Lindsey Eaton, 24, is just beginning her workday. She’ll work until noon, after which she’ll take the light rail, a bus or an Uber to GateWay Community College (GWCC) for a few classes. Later, she’ll navigate her way home to the apartment she shares with a roommate at 29 Palms, where she’ll clean, check her budget, cook her dinner, relax, and talk to her family.

Eaton’s schedule is the same on Wednesdays and Fridays, but she’s off from work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Those days, she instead begins her days with morning meetings at the apartment complex before heading to GWCC.

Eaton is a part of the First Place Transition Academy, Operated by SARRC, a two-year program designed to teach adults with autism to live independently.

Through a partnership with Foundation for Senior Living, First Place AZ and SARRC, students in the Transition Academy program live in their own apartments within a multi-generational apartment complex (currently 29 Palms). They’re taught the building blocks of independent living—including daily living, and social and employment skills—in a structured environment, both on-site and via a four semester 32-course sequence at GWCC, taught by SARRC staff, which leads to a certificate upon completion.

“The courses teach students skills, and then the living situation and integration into the community offers the direct practice and application of those skills,” Brad Herron-Valenzuela, the Transition Academy’s instructor, explains. “We allow them the opportunity to think through situations, develop life skills and navigate life situations with the right supports in place.”

Residents like Eaton, who is now in her second year of the program, learn how to navigate everything from calling an Uber or Lyft, to handling getting somewhere on time, to navigating social situations, making a budget, handling a job and more.

In addition to the on-site staff, the students cohabitate the property with seniors and others who qualify to live there, and there are several “supportive neighbors” who are paid a stipend to be the “check-in” when staff isn’t on property.

One bonus? Many of the seniors and residents have formed strong friendships, checking in on each other and even going grocery shopping together.

“I love the friends I have there and I love the supportive neighbors and staff,” Eaton shares. “I get along with the neighbors. We talk, and I fill them in on how my job went. When I got my job I told them and they were so excited for me.

“[Being here] has helped me,” she continues. “I cook my own meals, take the Light Rail or Uber to work, do laundry, live with a roommate. Basically, I’ve become more independent. My parents have seen that now firsthand. When I go home now I do laundry, I cook and I clean!”

“What we teach ranges from things like personal finance and budgeting, personal safety, interpersonal relationships, conflict resolution, etiquette, transportation and more,” Herron-Valenzuela explains. “Instead of having classes at SARRC, we have them at GWCC - where they would naturally occur. Also, our students are integrated into the campus there. They have to register for the classes, and their experience is just like any other student there. We aim to have our students fully integrate into a community.”

On the weekends, there are planned group and individual social activities, including meals out, trips to Arizona Diamondbacks games, and jaunts to the mall.

Currently there are 17 students living at First Place Transition Academy, Operated by SARRC. They range in age from 19-36, although the program is open to those 18-and-up. The students represent a mix of abilities and hometowns—while several grew up in the Valley, many arrive from out-of-state to take part in the program, as well.

This summer, the program will undergo an exciting transition of its own. All first-year Transition Academy students will spend year one at SARRC’s sister nonprofit, First Place AZ, a new housing and community development for individuals with autism and neuro-diverse abilities. Located in the heart of Phoenix, students will enjoy their own private bedroom in four-bedroom suites, and share common kitchen and living space. 

Besides students spending their first year at First Place, programming will remain consistent. In year two, students will then transition to 29 Palms where they will continue their transition to greater independence.

2017 Transition Academy graduate, Jake, celebrates his third year of employment at the AZ Diamondbacks.

What makes our program work so well, Herron-Valenzuela explains, are the community partners that are part of the program, from the Foundation for Senior Living to GateWay Community College.

“At every turn we’re pushing to integrate these individuals into the community, but at the same time looking to our community partners to help with that—that’s an integral part,” he says. “Our program really thrives because of those community partners.”

Eaton, along with nine of her peers, plans to graduate from the two-year program in May. She looks forward to continuing working at Arizona School Board Association and plans to move into First Place AZ as a resident.

“We look forward to furthering our efforts with current community partners like GWCC and various employments sites, while also collaborating and connecting with new ones,” says Herron-Valenzuela. “I also look forward to seeing our graduates live self-determined lives by contributing to and immersing themselves into their chosen communities.”

For more information about First Place Transition Academy, Operated by SARRC, click here. For information on First Place AZ, click here.