Facility serving those with autism opens in South Bend
South Bend Tribune - 1/22/2018
Jan. 22--SOUTH BEND -- A new facility serving children with autism and developmental disabilities is opening near downtown South Bend.
Riverbend Youth Center is based at 701 N. Niles Ave., in a three-story, 80,000-square-foot building that formerly housed Madison Center Children's Hospital.
The company plans to offer a K-12 private school, outpatient therapy, residential care and acute care for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Riverbend began leasing the building about a year ago, and interior renovations are underway.
Riverbend plans to open an outpatient therapy clinic in February, the residential facility by summer, the school in September and the acute care facility by the end of the year.
The facility will use sensory rooms, visual boards and applied behavioral analysis (ABA) techniques. Riverbend will serve individuals up to the age of 21 or as their private insurance permits.
Riverbend already is operating a small pilot school program serving four children.
The organizers plan to seek state accreditation to open a private, K-12 school this year that would serve up to 100 children with autism or similar disorders and accept state vouchers that would be good toward tuition. Class sizes are expected to be eight to 10 children. Tuition levels have not yet been set.
The school will be called Gersh Academy at Riverbend. It is being modeled after Gersh Academy, a school for children on the autism spectrum that has operated in Long Island, New York, since 1999. There's also a Gersh Academy in Puerto Rico and another being established near Seattle.
The school here will offer grade levels based on the ages and abilities of the students who enroll, said Leanne Sargent-Suarez, Riverbend director of education. "We'll open classrooms according to the needs of the community," she said.
The building includes a gym with full-size basketball court that will be used both during the day and for after-school programs, she said.
Riverbend is owned by Riverbend Behavioral Health Services, a for-profit firm that is a subsidiary of Meridian Behavioral Health Systems, based in Brentwood, Tenn. Meridian operates facilities in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, West Virginia and South Carolina.
While there are autism centers and services in this region, there are few residential facilities and often there are waiting lists for autism therapy services, Sargent-Suarez said.
Sargent-Suarez earned a bachelor's degree in Spanish at Indiana University South Bend and started working in the field of autism after her son, now 17, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. She formerly worked in autism services at Logan.
The facility will offered 70 beds in residential care, and an additional 32 beds for short-term acute care, all licensed through the state of Indiana.
The company is spending about $700,000 to $750,000 on capital improvements in the building, and making a total investment of about $1.5 million, Riverbend Chief Operating Officer Joshua A. Smith said.
Smith is a Marine Corps veteran who grew up in Kokomo. He moved here a year ago from South Carolina, where he already was working for Meridian. He earned a bachelor's degree in business at Indiana University and an MBA from Charleston Southern University.
Riverbend now has seven employees and expects to have 225 to 275 employees when fully operational, including licensed therapists, teachers, doctors, support staff and others. The school and outpatient clinic will be on the first floor, with residential care on the two upper floors.
One other tenant is in the building and will remain: Cultivate School and Catering, a non-profit founded last year to rescue leftover food from Notre Dame Stadium and Nelson's Catering & Fundraising and deliver it to local charities.
Riverbend is leasing the building from Matthews LLC, led by developer David Matthews. Matthews in 2016 announced plans to develop "co-living" apartments in the building. For about every 10 rooms, there was to be a shared kitchen and other shared living spaces for tenants. Residents would have a chance to reduce their rent by doing community service.
A coordinator moved in to the building to manage the project, but the co-living idea never took off, Matthews said. "We never had enough interest to move forward with it," he said.
Riverbend will offer two open houses for the public to visit and learn more about plans for a school, outpatient therapy, residential care and acute care for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. The events will be from 2 to 3:30 p.m.Feb. 18 and 6 to 7:30 p.m.Feb. 21. For more information, call 574-318-5684.
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