AUTISM PROGRAM LOOKS TO MODERNIZE
Record - 10/11/2017
Northern Valley Regional school officials are hoping to create a permanent home for a special-needs program that helps prepare autistic students from 37 school districts for life after school.
Right now, the Valley Program, which educates more than 180 students, is housed in rented space in Norwood. Administrators, along with a nonprofit group, share a vision of modernizing that space to provide a more robust program for its students. They are aiming to do it not with tax dollars, but through fundraising.
School officials hope to purchase the building before year's end, when their lease is up for renewal. Under the terms of the current lease, officials would need $1.2 million for a down payment for the property, which was formerly the Holy Family Catholic Academy. The purchase price is $5.9 million.
The program, which has students ages 3-21, supports those with special needs, with most of the student body diagnosed with autism. The students learn a variety life skills from the program's pre-vocational and vocational classes.
"It's amazing what I see happening with these kids," said Superintendent James Santana. "The level of passion and caring, to see people give that every day is special. I feel like this has been one of the most genuine projects we have taken on, to keep your kid in your hometown."
In the past, the nonprofit Valley Program Foundation for Children with Autism has purchased a school bus, iPads for nonverbal students to communicate with, and Smart Boards for all 25 classrooms. However, it becomes impractical to invest in a building the district doesn't own, said Kathy Vuoncino, director of the Valley Program
"If we don't own the building and we ever had to leave, we would have to leave it behind," Vuoncino said. "We can't take the lights with us."
Enhancing programming for autistic children is vital in New Jersey, which has one of the nation's highest autism rates, Vuoncino said. One in 41 children have autism in New Jersey, compared with one in 68 nationally, according to 2016 statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Somewhere in your families, you know someone with autism," Vuoncino said.
The Valley Program was previously housed in the historic Closter train station, and was known as the "Junction program," but it outgrew its space. The school district entered a two-year lease at the Holy Family Catholic Academy, which is owned by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Parish, in July 2016 with the option of a three-year renewal.
Northern Valley trustees tried to construct a $1 million facility for the program at Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest as part of a $13.1 million referendum proposal in 2015, but voters rejected it. A $11.7 million plan was approved by voters in 2016, but it did not include funds for the Valley Program facility.
If the district purchases the building at 200 Summit St., planned upgrades would include designated areas for therapy and sensory integration, an enhanced vocational program, a better playground and aquatic therapy.
"We've been working really hard to try and make a difference in the lives of the students and families that we touch," said Beth Gatanas, a teacher at the program for almost 20 years. "It can only get better."
Older students in the program take part in life-skills classes that help prepare them for real-world situations, such as doing laundry, apartment living and basic job skills. Students are even able to polish their business skills by running a school store, with items they have purchased from local businesses.
After students turn 16, they can work in local businesses, hospitals and libraries once a week. Not only does this help prepare students for future jobs, it helps the community better understand how to interact with the students, Gatanas said.
"The community members now realize, 'People are using iPads to speak with me,'" Gatanas said.
Purchasing the building would benefit the Northern Valley Community in other ways, Vuoncino said. The foundation plans to add a swimming pool, which could also be used by Northern Valley Regional High School swim teams, which don't have a home pool to practice in. Renovated fields and playgrounds could also be used by others in the community, Vuoncino said.
The foundation has hired a grant writer, but is also looking to the community for direct support. Students in the program are working to raise funds. A walkathon is planned for Oct. 18 at the school.
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Valley Program Foundation, 200 Summit St., Norwood, NJ 07648. For more information about Valley Program Foundation, visit valleyprogramfoundation.com/funding.