Summerville nonprofit meeting the needs of adults with intellectual disabilities

{child_byline}By Joy Bonala, jbonala@berkeleyind.com{/child_byline}

The Lowcountry, like every region of the Palmetto State, lacks financial support for programs serving adults with intellectual disabilities. One local nonprofit is asking why.

Beyond BASIC Life Skills goes beyond a safe place or a typical day center. The organization offers a curriculum that helps individuals gain independence, learn to problem solve and improve their social skills. Additionally, program advocates for inclusion within the community.

The nonprofit has two locations; Summerville and Mt. Pleasant.

Statewide there are more than 269,000 individuals with cognitive disabilities, but only a fraction of that population is employed. Ashton Johnson and Molly Smith, founders of Beyond BASIC Life Skills, say the absence of thousands of these individuals from the work force is directly correlated to the lack of support and quality programming in the state.

“Who will step up to support this area of need?” Smith said. “This lack of financial support

is the primary factor that is holding Beyond BASIC back from achieving its full potential in

our community.”

Day in the life at Beyond BASIC

Earlier this month at the Beyond BASIC office in Summerville, Molly Smith organized materials for classroom science experiment. On that day, her group was comprised of five teammates eager to learn about germs. She encouraged each person to take part in the project.

While his peers looked on, teammate Anthony Pope lifted a pitcher of water, carefully poured it into a measuring cup, and then into the mixing bowl.

Smith beamed. She praised Pope for completing the task.

“I am so proud of you,” she said.

Small accomplishments like these mean the most to teammates, their parents, and Smith and Johnson.

Pope, 27, has autism, other teammates have down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities, some are nonverbal. Individually, adults attend Beyond BASIC to fulfill individual goals by improving certain skills but collectively, the group teaches outsiders not to judge others based on appearances.

“Many people make generalized assumptions about what these individuals will be able

to do in life based on how they act, how they learn, or how they look,” Smith said. “Adults with intellectual disabilities have historically been kept in a box, while everyone else assumes what they can and cannot do,” Smith said.

Most noticeably, Beyond BASIC stands out among other programs because it does not operate on a medical model. Instead, the program is focused on teamwork. Together, teammates begin each day at 9 a.m. with a group exercise like a dance, then they move on to a sensory activity followed by chores and lunch. Personal hygiene is one area of focus, along with learning manners and money skills. Sometimes they go grocery shopping or prepare a meal together. By 2 p.m. Pope and his friends have completed a personal report that details their activities that day. That “bloomz report” will be given to parents so they can track their child’s growth.

Smith and Johnson never “do for,” the teammates. They also never make anyone do anything. Instead, they place expectations on every person to complete the task at hand.

“We find that once you step back and put the ball in their court, as an adult, they want to step up and make the right choices,” Smith said. “When you give someone a choice to make change, it’s going to stick- when you force the change; no one wants that. Everyone is so capable, they really are.”

Parents perspective

Special needs adults age out of high school at 21, in South Carolina there is often a gap before they are successfully enrolled in an appropriate program. That’s because many of the federally-funded programs have a waiting list or they may only serve individuals with a particular skill level.

After high school, Anthony Pope’s father, Tony Pope, hired Molly Smith to work one on one with his son but he admits that is a level of care that many other parents cannot afford. Pope knew another young woman, Ashton Johnson, who had recently piloted a life skills program in Charleston. Smith and Johnson realized they shared a vision.

Johnson’s older sister, Melissa, 35, has an intellectual disability. Johnson recognized the lack of support lack of support for older individuals with disabilities and realized that she could be part of the solution. She created a program tailored to Melissa’s unique needs. Smith joined in and together, they have refined the Beyond BASIC curriculum.

Anthony Pope said the duo has done great things together and he’s excited to see how their program will grow.

“It’s wonderful that we have this organization here in our local community to help these adults that need help with independent living skills,” Pope said. “it’s been a big help for all of them, especially with improving their self-confidence.”

Pope has watched his son blossom in the past four years that he’s attended Beyond BASIC. Anthony is more aware of his surroundings than he used to be and he’s developed life skills including cooking, cleaning and shopping.

“Their program has helped him to form better friendships, I think he’s more outgoing and his speech has gotten better,” Pope said. “It’s helped him in numerous ways.”

Anthony’s friend, Joy Bauer, 24, had a similar journey from high school to Beyond BASIC. Joy’s mother, Tamara, searched all over the region and observed different day programs. But none of those seemed ideal for Joy, who is high functioning. Bauer said Beyond BASIC challenges her daughter in ways that other programs do not.

“Joy has just come so far in the past three years since she’s been there,” Bauer said. “She’s becoming more independent and doing things for herself that I never believed she could do.”

Through repeated practice in the program, her daughter mastered certain chores like taking out the trash. She learned how to brush her own teeth; little things that seem insignificant but are huge milestones.

“What I like is, they met Joy where she was,” Bauer said. “And they have brought her along the way and developed her skills; she’s become so much more independent in every way.”

Bauer said the Beyond BASIC team has become like an extended family.

“I don’t know what I would do without the Beyond BASIC family, for us it has been life-changing,” Bauer said.

Where to go from here

Beyond BASIC co-founder Ashton Johnson is in the process of applying to receive federal funding by becoming a state provider. However, the transition from private pay to state provider would change Beyond BASIC in ways that Johnson just isn’t comfortable with.

Currently the program operates out of Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant and from an office in Summerville on East 5th North Street. To receive federal funds, Beyond BASIC would need to relocate its program to facilities that meet certain guidelines including square footage, number of bathrooms and other requirements. The nonprofit would need to hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a facility designed with the proper layout.

“The way it’s set up, we would have to find a whole new space,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately that’s just the way it is in South Carolina. We’re trying to fight to change it, it’s just a long battle.”

Other states have different standards for providers, even in neighboring North Carolina standards are more attainable for a nonprofit like Beyond BASIC, Johnson said.

Another factor that gives Johnson pause is if Beyond BASIC becomes a state provider, the program would be opening its doors to the large number of people currently on waiting lists for services- forcing Beyond BASIC to hire more employees. Many of the other day programs pay employees minimum wage but the four full-time employees at Beyond BASIC are paid a higher wage- a fact that Johnson is proud of.

Although Johnson and Smith teach daily, they themselves are not paid employees. They two are actually volunteering their time because they sacrificed their pay until the program becomes more self-sustaining.

“There are just so many people that need help and we’re stretching ourselves so much,” Johnson said.

Beyond BASIC is currently planning a fundraiser and working to connect with civic groups in Summerville. Johnson’s goal is to help facilitate more inclusion for adults with intellectual disabilities. To learn more about the nonprofit, visit beyondbasiclifeskills.org/