News Article Details

Autism clinic born in former friars home by Mishawaka Marian High

South Bend Tribune - 3/10/2019

March 10-- Mar. 10--MISHAWAKA -- About five preschoolers play with staff members, learning skills to live with autism, in a carpeted room where Catholic friars had lounged a year ago. This beige brick building had housed friars ever since it was built in 1964 here on the Marian High School campus.

A new chapter? Actually, more than one.

Journey's Behavior Learning Center just opened in February but has quickly filled with 26 young students and a staff of 35. More families inquired this week. It's a testament to the demand for autism services -- in this case, a clinic that works one-on-one with kids, using applied behavior analysis -- where there's often a waiting list of months.

"This is the kind of therapy that used to not be covered by insurance," said co-owner Leanne Suarez, the mother of an autistic son and one of the early staff at LOGAN's Sonya Ansari Center for Autism more than 10 years ago who'd helped families to find services. Now families are covered, and families can find other local clinics similar to Journey's. "I've seen that whole gamut of kids be able to access services. You can really see the progress with these kids."

Journey's is a brand-new, locally owned business for kids ages 2 to 19. It also served as a safety net after Suarez and co-owner Joshua Smith were abruptly shuttered from the similar autism services they were running for an outside firm in a former Madison Center building.

Landlord Dave Matthews said he had to lock the doors at 701 N. Niles Ave., South Bend, at the end of January after Tennessee-based Meridian Behavioral Health Systems failed to pay rent and utilities for the prior four months.

Out of about 35 kids in the outpatient clinic in South Bend, roughly half are now at Journey's, said Smith, who was CEO of just Meridian's local business, which was called Riverbend Behavioral Health.

"Our passion is providing services for kids who need it," said Smith, a native of Kokomo, Ind., who wanted to stay here close to family members.

He said Meridian had run into financial issues and emphasized Journey's has nothing to do with Meridian, where he and Suarez are no longer employed. Smith had worked as a vice president for Meridian, but he said he gave up that role when he moved to South Bend almost two years ago to focus solely on starting the Riverbend site. Now, he said, he doesn't know what the status of the corporation is.

"Everybody I knew, they're gone from the corporate level," he said.

The Tribune couldn't reach a Meridian official for comment. Calls to a toll-free number at its website weren't returned, and the corporate office apparently has moved. Meridian once ran businesses offering behavioral health services in five states. Some businesses apparently are still affiliated with Meridian. Employees at Northlake Behavioral Health System just north of New Orleans say Meridian abruptly ended its ownership six months ago without an explanation.

Meridan also had a school at the South Bend site, with just a couple of students when it closed, and had plans to open residential care for youths with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities. Smith had been seeking a state license for 70 beds.

Meridian also stopped paying bills to South Bend contractor OJS Building Services after June for upgrades that it had started in October 2017 and that OJS continued to do, said general manager Brian Sears. The firm worked on repairs and upgrades to the water heater, boiler, plumbing, heating and temperature controls, he said.

In Mishawaka, Suarez and Smith said, the friars' old two-story home is just the right space. They've had to make minimal changes. Bedrooms, as it turns out, make nice space for quiet, focused work with just one, two or three kids at a time -- kids who, because of autism, can be overwhelmed by stimuli.

The cinder-block walls, Suarez said, are good for sound proofing. The kitchen helps to teach some life skills, she said, and the enclosed courtyard will be good for outdoor play as the weather warms.

The fully equipped chapel and sacristy, though, remain locked and off limits. The Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend owns the building, which has seen different orders of friars and brothers live there since Marian itself opened in the same year, 1964, said Mary Kay Dance, the school's director of admissions and public relations.

The building had been vacant for less than a year, which Suarez became aware of because her son goes to Marian. She and Smith signed a lease and opened the clinic in February, once city fire marshal George Schafer gave them a temporary certificate to use the site, pending a few minor details that, Schafer said, were all addressed by March 4.

Last Monday, the city council approved a use variance Journey's had needed for the building.

Here, Suarez said, young people come for partial or full days, depending on their needs. Through staff that are either registered or certified in applied behavior analysis, they are learning behavioral skills so they can focus and learn in school, work a job or just live at home.

Medicaid and private insurance fully cover the cost as a medical service, Smith said, aside from any copay. Payment rates vary based on insurance, he said, but for example, Medicaid pays about $1,500 per week for full-time therapy at the clinic.

For more information

Journey's Behavior Learning Center can be reached at 574-855-4292. Its website will go live in the coming week: journeysblc.com.

jdits@sbtinfo.com 574-235-6158

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(c)2019 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

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