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First Place opens with aim to help adults with autism gain independence

(First Place-Phoenix photo)

PHOENIX — Lindsey Eaton said her parents were more worried than she was when she moved into a transitional housing facility.

Now, she credits First Place-Phoenix as helping her budget her money, find work and learn basic life skills.

“I learned how to cook my own meals, budget my own money, take the light rail and Uber and how to interview for jobs,” Eaton said. “I work not one but two jobs.”

Eaton, who has autism, is employed at Zoyo Neighborhood Yogurt and the Arizona School Board Association. In addition, she serves as a resident engagement member and helps plan events for First Place residents.

In July, First Place-Phoenix opened its doors to the first residents. The apartment complex and its programs help people with autism and other special needs learn how to live more independently.

Denise Resnik, founder, president and CEO, compared it to a senior living center.

Residents in these facilities have a variety of needs, whether it’s health or mobility or they’re ready to retire.

Caring for those with special needs is a similar concept, she said. Different people need assistance with different things.

“It’s very important that we mature a marketplace so that the market knows how to respond to the vast diversity and heterogeneity of what we’re talking about,” Resnik said.

There used to be one senior community area, she said — Sun City. Now, they’re bountiful.

Resnik hopes First Place can serve as a barometer and work with public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to create housing “portfolios” to increase options available for the special needs community.

“There’s not a one size fits all, and so we need to have different options at different locations at different price points, in the same way that senior housing does,” she said.

The complex offers apartment spaces, a two-year academy of 32 classes focused on independent living and developing interpersonal and career skills, and a training center for autism researchers.

The opening of the 81,000-square-foot, $15.4 million facility serves as the inception of Resnik’s two-decade plan.

In the first year of the program, residents will get a private bedroom in a four-bedroom suite with a shared kitchen and living space. They will receive services ranging from volunteer work to paid internships to group employment.

Year two moves a step further from dependency.

Residents move into 29 Palms apartment, an off-site senior living home in Phoenix. In 2014, the complex first offered rooms for adults with autism, and Resnik said she was aiming to find a location similar for her own program.

That time has come. With the connection to 29 Palms, there will be nine units available for residents with autism, who can live more independently and meet seniors without autism living in the same facility.

“It’s not just about the four walls of a home, but it’s what people do all day and how they connect to their greater community for jobs, for friends, for recreation … for things we all want,” Resnik said.

With community comes a greater sense of safety, which was one of Eaton’s parents concerns with letter her live away from them at First Place.

Resnik knows the feeling. She’s the mother of an adult with autism named Matthew.

“The best safety-security system is more eyes and ears, and the people in your life who you don’t pay to care about you,” she said. “That’s what it means to have community.”

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Kathy Cline contributed to this report.

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