Shopping might be one of those things that feels like a load of fun to some of us, but it's not for everyone. It can be a loaded excursion for people who struggle with social anxiety or, beyond that, people with special needs. But the reality is, deep down everyone wants to be able to go to a store and make their own purchases in the easiest way possible. Which is why this new special needs center in a downtown New Jersey neighborhood is so revolutionary. The entire concept is to make improving life skills like shopping in a more accessible setting.
Life Village is a massive replica of a downtown core set in LifeTown, a 53.000 square foot building designed to be user-friendly for special needs children and teens in Livingston, New Jersey. As Zalman Grossbaum,LifeTown CEO and executive director of Friendship Circle, the nonprofit organization behind the facility, told Jewish News Syndicate, "The goal of LifeTown is to make the world a welcoming place, integrating people with special needs, including autism, into daily life. LifeTown is a model for people with special needs and all kids—when they play together they naturally come together and don’t notice differences.” Life Village has the potential to help thousands of families in the region when it opens on Sept. 9.
Life Village includes a "Main Street" at its core, where guests are welcome to wander through shops that have been based on other regional stores they will recognize. Places like a branch of the Regal Bank, a ShopRite supermarket, as well as a coffee shop, copy center, flower shop, nail salon, laundromat, and stores to buy clothes and electronics. LifeTown Shoppes even has a roadway with a crosswalk and traffic lights plus a movie theater. Teens and children with special needs will have the chance to walk along tree-lined sidewalks while stopping in to get their food at the grocery store or go see a film. These shops all offer a safe and controlled environment for people with special needs to practice scenarios that might come up in every day living. Staff at each of the LifeTown Shoppes, who are all either volunteers or student interns, have been trained to help reinforce life skills like money management, social skills, sensory integration, communication and more. As Grossbaum told True Jersey.com:
What we really want is the interaction between the larger community and the special needs community, so that everyone is learning from each other.
As the Watson Institute notes, it is vitally important for people with special needs to find their own independence. To feel as though they can navigate the world on their own without having to rely on someone else to do things like go to the grocery store or get their hair done. And what better way to learn those skills than by going out and doing them yourself in a shopping district that has been designed to make it easier for you? LifeTown is a brilliant idea, and one I hope catches on in cities across the country.