Boston is a center for learning, with colleges and universities around nearly every corner. But the opportunities for young adults with developmental disabilities to continue their education and gain independence are limited. That was until 3LPlace opened its doors at 50 Whitman St. just outside of Davis Square.
The “Life College” was founded by Deborah Flaschen, of Brookline, whose son has autism and had matured out of the programs targeted at younger kids with developmental disabilities.
“We were able to fashion a program that worked for who D.J. was, he had a robust life,” Flaschen said of her son’s experience prior to age 17. So when Flaschen couldn’t find a program or curriculum that was up to snuff for her child, who was now a young man, she decided to create her own.
Flaschen and other parents of developmentally disabled children came together to create a board and staff of experts to help plan 3LPlace, from renovating a two-unit house to creating a comprehensive curriculum. Many local businesses also donated their goods and services to help 3LPlace get off the ground.
“This was previously well-used college housing,” said June Peoples Mallon, 3LPlace’s director of communications and development and the parent of a developmentally disabled child. “We took it down to the studs.”
The space 3LPlace now inhabits is bright and airy, with ample bedrooms, bathrooms and communal areas for the 20 members that will someday occupy it. From using low-VOC paint, environmentally friendly appliances and ensuring that some bedrooms and bathrooms were compliant with the American Disabilities Act, every decision at 3LPlace was made to accommodate young adults with a range of issues.
“It’s been completely renovated,” Flaschen said. “One of the challenges for people with developmental disabilities is executive functioning. We arranged the space so that it’s not cluttered and easily discernible, so there’s less cognitive load.”
3LPlace has worked with experts from Tufts and around the world to create a curriculum that allows them to address each student individually to help them gain life skills and independence. And in using the curriculum at 3LPlace, it will be tested and researched to achieve best practices.
“One of the things that motivates us and has been a driver is that each individual deserves to be treated as an individual,” Flaschen said. “We have a strong civil rights piece here. That really guides us in everything we do.”
Mallon added, “The program is built around individuals. We start with the kid and build out from there. We develop an individual plan with a discovery period to identify goals and interests. So few people with autism have been talked to on that level.”
3LPlace focuses on the three “Ls”: Learning, Living and Linking. The learning and living aspects are evident throughout the house and in the daily schedules of the current members. Signs in the bathroom remind the young men of the steps involved in shaving and tasks like prepping dinner, doing laundry and taking out the trash are part of the daily routine.
“When they’re awake, they’re learning,” Mallon said. While these tasks may sound simple to many people, Flaschen said, “as a parent of someone with autism, they don’t come easily.”
Linking is getting the members out into the community through physical activities like swimming at a local Boston Sports Club, helping at a food pantry or going on a cultural outing.
The ultimate goal of 3LPlace is to provide developmentally disabled young adults the same chance as their peers who go to college to grow and learn after high school.
“That’s why people separate, they need to self-actualize,” Flaschen said. “Adults with developmental disabilities have every right to those same opportunities.”
When selecting a location for 3LPlace, Flaschen instinctively knew Somerville would be the perfect place. She’s an alum of both Tufts University and the beloved Steve’s Ice Cream.
“When I returned to Boston in 1997, I started coming over here and seeing this incredible transformation of Davis Square,” Flaschen said. She thought, “I can see D.J. living here. Everything that’s happened since then has made it even more so.”
This was confirmed when Flaschen’s son D.J. recently told his mother, “Everywhere I see unique people in the street who just don’t feel I am weird and they greet me respectfully.”
Mallon added, “There’s something about Somerville. It’s opened its arms.”
Images courtesy of 3LPlace.