GREAT BARRINGTON -- Life skills classes for Robert Warner and his classmates used to take place in a classroom at Monument Mountain Regional High School, with pretend food, a mock grocery line, and staff playing the roles of bank tellers and clerks.
Warner, 18, and his fellow peers with autism spectrum disorders sometimes need extra support and practice with things like cooking, cleaning and shopping, as compared to their non-affected or "typical" peers.
About three years ago, his mother, Diane "Dee Dee" Warner, of Great Barrington, approached Karen Mackey, an autism specialist at Monument Mountain, and asked about finding a program to better assist her son outside of the school and in a more real-life setting.
Mackey and Special Education Director Thomas Simon looked around the region in partnership with Berkshire Family and Individual Resources (BFAIR) for a program for young adults, but came up empty-handed. So, they came up with their own.
Warner, through a friend, found a family who had been renting out to summer tourists a two-floor home at 18 Fairview Terrace in Great Barrington. BFAIR came up with an arrangement to lease the building, and the high school contracts with BFAIR to use the facility.
Mackey, her colleague Gary Kapchinske, and paraprofessionals Betsy Heath and Barbara "Barb" Teggi then designed a program called Bridging the Gap, for 18- to 22-year-olds who are still eligible to receive school services. In addition to life skills, the program also has a specialist who teaches the students about building professional, familial and dating relationships.
"It's nice. I come here and learn everything," said student Garrett Luchi, 21. "I cook, I clean and [keep track of] the newspapers."
The weekday program officially began back in September and the pilot, which served seven students, will wrap up for the academic year this week. Last week, Bridging the Gap held an open house and end-of-the-year cookout to celebrate its success.
Heath said the students are "a lot more patient" with each other than they had been in a classroom setting. She said she and Teggi work to get the students to "do what other people at the same age would be doing if they were on their own in a college apartment or dorm."
She said some students are better at doing tasks than others. They learn "the natural consequences" of life, such as what happens when they're not on time, if they go over a budget or add the wrong amount of an ingredient to a recipe.
"I advocated for this for my son, but it's nice to see the other students benefiting too," Dee Dee Warner said. "I'm worried about the funding, but I keep hoping that this is not just a pilot but something my son will have for the next four years."
BFAIR Executive Director Rich Weisenflue said "the school has made a commitment" to keep the program running next year and to develop it as a model for the Berkshires. Mackey will also do some programming at the house with students during the summmer.
On July 1, Simon will pass the baton of special education director for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District to Kate Burdsall, who said she understands how critical it is for students with autism to make that transition from high school into a daily living routine.
Currently, almost all the students participating in Bridging the Gap have some sort of job or internship, and balance their time working and doing tasks around the house between the hours of 7 a.m. at 2:30 p.m.
Asked what his typical day is like, Robert Warner said, "I come here to make breakfast. Some days I got to BCC (Berkshire Community College) or work. Here [at the house] I go for walks, I mop, I clean, I watch TV sometimes. I learn everything I would need for life."
Robert said that after going to class and working at Muddy Brook Elementary School, he likes "being able to relax" at the Bridging the Gap house.
Simon said the house was chosen not only because of its cooperative and compassionate landlords, but also because of its proximity to businesses and services. Students can access a bus line and walk to the grocery store, restaurants and banks.
"It's important that they get out and socialize," said Dee Dee Warner.
"It's also good for the public, because the more they're out there, the more the public is aware of students like them, and autism," she said.
To learn more about Bridging the Gap, call the director of special education at Berkshire Hills Regional School District at (413) 298-4017, ext. 14, or BFAIR at (413) 664-9382, ext. 26.