Nina Bernardo’s favorite part of the workday is a common choice but not for the typical reason. “My favorite part of the day is the early evening, that’s really when the socializing happens,” Bernardo said.
When Bernardo, the community life coordinator at First Place-Phoenix, leaves her office toward the end of the day, she’s likely to see residents of the supportive, inclusive community for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodiverse abilities interacting after a day full of activities, job training, work or volunteer opportunities.
“They’re talking about their weekend plans, reflecting on their weeks, all reinforcing that sense of community,” she explained.
At First Place, residents can make friends, have fun and live independently. The four-story modern building and supportive housing community includes 55 apartments designed to consider sensitivity to light and sound, with various, multi-use spaces for promoting activities and community. Located in the heart of Phoenix and close to transit options, First Place is uniquely situated to demonstrate greater resident independence with access to the broader community, also recognized by PBS NewsHour as ‘the most autism friendly city in the world.’
“I have had the privilege of visiting First Place and been able to see first-hand what makes it so special. Many adults with autism or other disabilities can face unique challenges in daily life and First Place is a true asset and resource for them,” Joey Carney, territory manager for LifeLoop, said. “Everything from the design of the building to the supportive, caring environment they have created helps the residents develop personally and professionally.”
The Transition Academy
Part of First Place’s offerings is a Transition Academy. In the first year, residents live in their own private bedroom in an apartment suite shared with three others. They volunteer, take on internships and employment and use public transportation.
Former Academy student and current apartment resident Lindsey Eaton works as a dining room attendant at BridgeWater Assisted Living & Memory Care.
“My favorite parts of my workday are going up on the floors to deliver meals to the residents for lunch,” Eaton said. “And I also love bussing and cleaning tables in the dining room after breakfast since both those opportunities allow me to interact with the seniors.”
In the second year of the Transition Academy, residents move up to two-bedroom suites with private bedrooms and bathrooms. Upon completion of the program including 32 semester courses offered by First Place through its Learn4Independence® curriculum, residents continue transition planning and receive a certificate in life skills at a GateWay Community College graduation ceremony.
“I was especially impressed with the Transition Academy and the steps they have in place to encourage and develop independent life skills for each of the residents – and build community within the broader community,” Carney said.
Upon graduation, 89% of the students live in a community of their choosing. Some choose to stay at First Place-Phoenix.
An Emphasis on Community Life
As the community life coordinator, Bernardo schedules roughly three events per day, and each day has a theme. The week starts with “Mindful Monday” followed by “Totally Tuesday,” which features fun games, bingo and karaoke. Wednesday is all about wellness, working out and learning about healthy eating. Thoughtful Thursday features meditation, art activities and trivia contests. Feel-good Fridays and the ice cream and smoothie happy hours celebrate the close of the week. The weekend starts with “Social Saturday” followed by “Soulful Sunday,” featuring brunch and relaxing activities. In these COVID times, and with limited access to movie theatres, bowling alleys and sporting events, more activities are now based at First Place-Phoenix where all activities include facemask wearing, hand-sanitizing and physically distancing protocols.
“I am a BIG fan of being kind to people, so I loved all of our Community Life events that we did for the Summer of Kindness and are doing for the Kind It Forward campaign,” Eaton said. “We tie dyed shirts for ourselves, friends and FP staff, made kindness boxes for families and became pen pals with seniors at a local senior living facility. We’re continuing this campaign right now by writing kindness letters, assembling face masks for the Apache and Navajo reservations, and making kindness coins for Ben’s Bells.”
A Sense of Independence
Residents use LifeLoop software to register for activities. Nothing is mandatory but First Place staff work with residents and their families to come to an agreement on what’s a good fit for each individual.
“Our residents have a voice in what it is they would like to see in terms of activities, which is informed by the leisure interest survey they complete and our Council of Resident Engagement, also known as CORE,” Bernardo said. “In addition, they have a choice. They do not have to participate in all community life activities, but most engage in some way. It’s a big benefit to living at First Place and a great way to meet people and make friends, something they want, and their families want for them too.”
Residents can view activities for the entire month; registration for the upcoming week opens on Saturday. “They really, really, really look forward to Saturdays, logging into LifeLoop and registering for the next week’s activities,” Bernardo said.
Some residents use a smartphone or personal computer to log-in. Others like Whitney, a 35-year-old resident without such technology in her apartment, uses the concierge service to get signed up. Whitney frequents yoga, bingo and karaoke. When it comes to karaoke, she often sticks to her favorite late-90s boy bands.
“*NSync and Backstreet Boys,” Whitney answered when asked about her go-to songs. She can also use LifeLoop to find another resident with an appreciation for “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” or “I Want It That Way,” and timeless hits of the boy-band era,” Bernardo said. A different resident used LifeLoop to connect with someone whose contact information they didn’t previously have.
“The resident really likes the messaging feature because she didn’t have the cell phone number of a resident. She was able to log into LifeLoop, look up the resident’s name and successfully contact him that way,” Bernardo said.
While registering for activities and putting in maintenance requests make up most of the resident’s use of LifeLoop, they can also upload photos of their activities for others to view. “Partnering with First Place has allowed us to learn how we can add value to other communities outside of senior living,” said Amy Johnson, LifeLoop CEO. “Being able to explore how LifeLoop can foster communication and create connections for the residents of First Place has been very fulfilling for our company. We truly believe in the mission of their property.”
Bernardo added she likes the ability to use digital signage to keep residents updated on activities and the ease of altering LifeLoop’s features to match her desires.
“They’re very receptive to receiving feedback and suggestions,” she said.“We’ve really been able to adapt and maximize our use of LifeLoop.”
It’s a Passion
While it’s her job to plan and promote the structured activities, Bernardo really enjoys seeing the residents interacting on their own and how they flourish over time. She has worked in the First Place community since giving hard-hat tours nearly three years ago, and it’s the residents that have her coming back on a daily basis. “They fill your cup up, you know? They give you a sense of purpose,” she said. “I feel like I’m giving back, making a difference, helping increase their quality of life and adding to my own.”
To learn more about First Place-Phoenix, visit their website at www.firstplaceaz.org/.