Published: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 3:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 28, 2012 at 3:36 p.m.
Zane Garrick can’t wait until June.
Confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, the 39-year-old will finally move into his first home.
Once there, he will be able to open and close doors, control the TV and lights, and cook by himself. He will live more independently than ever before.
“I’m excited,” Garrick said. “I want to be able to keep moving. I like being able to do things by myself.”
But before Garrick can make this big move, he has to acquire the skills needed to live on his own.
To do this, he is using a new 12,000-square-foot facility inside the Charles Lea Center.
With a simulated market, bank, restaurant, doctor’s and dentist’s office, apartment building and more, the Life Skills Center gives adults with special needs, like Garrick, hands-on experience with various real-life situations.
“They can practice things here and get good at them, so when they move into an apartment or home, they will already be familiar with everything,” said Dr. Jerry Bernard, executive director of the Charles Lea Center.
All of the environments were designed to look as real as possible. The lobby of the facility resembles an outdoor setting, with plant life and faux grass, streetlights and crosswalks. The bricks that seem to run up and down the walls are actually vinyl siding. A van is parked inside to let participants practice boarding and exiting a vehicle. It was donated by a local dealership.
The training rooms, including the grocery store, restaurant and bank, face the “outdoorsy” lobby area, which resembles a stretch of downtown businesses.
“We are trying to create a realistic idea of what downtown looks like,” Bernard said. “The whole idea here is to role-play a lot of things, like a simulation. The ones that work well are the ones that are realistic.”
The market area contains real groceries so the adults can practice shopping; the doctor’s office contains a waiting room, a dentist’s chair and a doctor’s chair. It’s designed to help people combat their fears and apprehension regarding going to the doctor or dentist.
Beside the restaurant, which resembles a Zaxby’s, an ATM machine is attached to the wall. While it doesn’t actually spit out money, “people can slide the card in and put in their number,” Bernard said. “Some of the things we do naturally, some of our folks need to be reminded.”
Those who use the facility can also get acquainted with some state-of-the-art technology by SimplyHome, a North Carolina-based company.
SimplyHome designs and installs wireless technology products geared toward the aging and disabled.
“This is where we are going,” said Jeff Ballenger, senior director of residential services. “We are taking this environment and mimicking it in some of our existing housing.”
The Charles Lea Center currently has about 370 people living in residential apartments and homes throughout the Upstate.
Seated in a wheelchair inside the apartment area at the Life Skills Center, Garrick controlled the doors, the TV, the lights, the front door and a bed simply by touching an iPad. With each touch of the screen, a large smile appeared on his face as objects in the room responded to his commands.
“This means a lot to me,” he said. “It makes me happy.”
When Garrick moves into his Cowpens home in June with three other buddies who also have special needs, the device will no longer be on an iPad; it will be permanently attached to his wheelchair.
A staff worker will live with them at all times to provide assistance if needed, but Bernard says the device will give the residents a lot more independence.
“If the staff person is in the kitchen making hamburgers or whatever and someone wants to change the TV, they can do it without having to wait for someone to do it for them,” he said.
Lois Durrah, director of Charles Lea Center’s day services, says the technology is also great for residents’ families.
“Families now have the reassurance that the person is not going to just be there and helpless — they are capable,” she said. “They can be out on their own and they’re happy and they’re safe and they are so much more independent.”
Garrick says the technology will also remind him when to take his medicine.
Transforming an area that was once occupied by conference rooms into the Life Skills Center took six months and cost about $70,000. The majority was paid for with grants, and the rest was funded by donations.
The original vision consisted of a restaurant, a food store and doctor’s office, but Michael Burnett, a Charles Lea Center employee who helped construct the facility, kept adding details.
The entrance hallway into the facility is covered wall to wall with sights of downtown Spartanburg. A local print-making company enlarged photographs and placed them on the walls.
“We are really excited,” Bernard said. “I think this is a great resource for our community, and it will really help more people move into more independent housing.”