A state-supported program in Lafayette is helping adults with developmental disabilities find their way to self-sufficiency. By Lisa Hanchey
Upon entering a strip mall on Ambassador Caffery Parkway facing Eraste Landry Road, I am greeted with bright, colorful art and the raucous sounds of laughter. Inside is a classroom full of students — several in wheelchairs, some with speaking difficulties and others unable to talk at all. Director Debbi Gonzalez asks the question of the day in sign language and aloud: “How many countries are there in the world?” Then she asks, “When do I get the answer?” In unison, the class of men and women of various ages answer, “Two thirty.” Then, they get back to their life skill lessons of the day, which might include arts and crafts, exercise, current events, health information, social skills, games and nutrition.
Instructor Shaunte Hamilton, right, counts tennis balls
What is this unique place? It is IMPAC (Involvement Makes Productive Active Citizens) by Alternative Home Care Specialists, a day program offering life skills training and supported employment for adults with disabilities. Launched one year ago, IMPAC works with mentally and physically challenged adults ages 17 and over to improve their gross and fine motor skills, visual tracking, eye/hand coordination, sequencing, toning, spatial awareness, range of motion, strengthening, sportsmanship, concentration and communication. “They come here to learn social skills, life skills and healthy habits,” Gonzalez explains. “They just mix so very well and learn from each other. And, I think that’s one of the beauties of the program, is when they start practicing what we’ve taught them.”
Participants in IMPAC have various types of disabilities, including autism, mild mental retardation, Down’s syndrome, severe hearing loss or deafness, spina bifida and cerebral palsy. “It’s kind of hard to list them, because I don’t see the disabilities,” Gonzalez says. “I see them as just people needing a place to hang out, have some fun and be a part of society.”
Unlike other day centers for disabled adults, IMPAC provides an educational component. On the day I visited, participants were learning about cooperation and self-esteem. They also learn daily living skills, such as using a microwave, setting an alarm clock and exchanging money. “A lot of these folks may not have the skills that other people do, or they need a little more help in, for example, counting money,” Gonzalez says. “We have computers with touch screens, which they love. And, we do a lot of interactive things there.”
Participant Stoney, who competed in the state Special Olympics, tells me what he has learned at IMPAC. “I learned how to use the computer and to read,” he says. “I like Miss Debbie and the staff. It’s like my second home.”
Clients also do arts and crafts projects and Movement and Motion, a seated cardiac workout program. “We recognize a need to have these people do something besides stay home one-and-one with workers,” Gonzalez says. “In this environment, we have a lot of fun. But, there’s learning going on, too.”
Around the center are arts and crafts projects completed by the participants. A two-sided partition is covered with crafts made with recycled materials, including paint sticks transformed into snowmen, frozen food containers fashioned into figurines, a clothespin converted into an alligator chip clip and an origami koala bear made from a coffee filter. “I like the arts and crafts,” says participant Meagan, 23. “I made a snowman.”
An enthusiastic Amy, who has been attending IMPAC for a year, also enjoys the art, as well as the exercise program. “I love it here,” she says. “We dance and have fun.”
“I don’t see the disabilities. I see them as just people needing a place to hang out, have some fun and be a part of society.”
— Debbie Gonzales,
After a session with a dietitian, students learned how to make healthier meals, and the staff is seeing the results. “I have one participant who starts every Tuesday with showing me what she has made herself for lunch and snacks,” Gonzalez shares. “The participants are bringing healthy items like bananas, strawberries and cherries, and are making their own sandwiches, which surprises their parents.”
A couple of times a month IMPAC brings in volunteer workers from other non-profit agencies, including United Way and Faith House. Participants have made bracelets from beads and put information packets together. “They know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it,” Gonzalez says. “This is their way of giving back to the community. They are very capable of it, and very much want to do it.
IMPAC is part of the New Opportunities Waiver program run by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals’ Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities. NOW is a comprehensive community-based waiver program serving children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Through the waiver program, disabled citizens have greater flexibility to choose the services and supports that best suit their needs. NOW pays for day/vocational services such as IMPAC. Private-pay clients can also participate.
Several years ago, Alternative Home Care Specialists did a trial program for disabled adults offering exercise and arts and crafts for a couple of hours. After getting positive response, owner Cyd Begnaud and Gonzalez discussed expanding into a full-day program, which became IMPAC.
Currently, the program has six staff members with Gonzalez at the helm. “The employees have really big hearts, and they tend to love with they do,” she says.
In its first year of operation, IMPAC has 40 participants and is already looking toward expansion. Clients have the option of attending two, three or five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. “I find people underestimate these folks so much,” Gonzalez says. “They can learn, and they enjoy learning. And, they enjoy taking their skills home and using them. We make them as independent as they can be.”
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