New space for those with special needs opens in Kitchener

Heather Barrow said she was concerned what programs would be available for her own autistic daughter when she graduates from high school, so she started a new organization to provide a service she said is lacking in the region.

Local mom and special education teacher co-founded Light House

Light House staff take clients on grocery shopping trips, will teach them to cook, and can focus on other independent living lessons. (Light House/Facebook)

Students with special needs get support and programs they need while in school, but many parents worry about what will happen after graduation.

It's a concern for Kitchener mother and special education teacher Heather Barrow. Her 10-year-old daughter was diagnosed with autism when she two years old and already Barrow is worried about her future. She has also heard the same from parents of her students.

Parents have asked her, "What's next for my child? Are they going to lose that social piece, the peer relationships, what are they going to do?" Barrow said in an interview with CBC News. "There are a ton of services lacking in our community as the number of individuals diagnosed with a developmental disability increase."

That's why Barrow co-founded Light House Programs, a new space in Kitchener that caters to adults with special needs.

Support for a variety of clients

"Our centre's open for individuals with a wide variety of developmental disabilities," Barrow said. Clients include people with Down syndrome, autism, people with a developmental delay, or those that have a chromosome deficiency.

"We have individuals who need very little support, so they can ... work on specific skills or programs we have established at our centre. And then we do have others who do require that more one-to-one support, whether it's toileting support … or hand-over-hand assistance when we're in the kitchen and we're cutting vegetables or even something as simple as stirring," Barrow said.

Some of the attendees take part in volunteer work placements, such as two people who are helping out with a nutritional snack program at a local school.

"It's a sense of ownership. it's their thing, it's their project. They're going in there as adults and it gives them a little bit of empowerment. They know they're bigger, they know they're older, they get that they're doing something to help these kids," she said, adding they feel a level of pride and are excited to help out.

"They're excited to go to work. It's just like everyone else in our community. They hear about mom and dad, or brothers and sisters going to their job, well, this is their job."

Range of programs

Programs for adults are full-day, between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., five days a week and include teaching clients about money skills, getting around the community, how to cook, grocery shopping trips and other lessons that will help with independent living. Those who attend the programs can come for as little as a few hours to the full week.

A child enjoys a special sensory room at Light House, which offers programs for individuals with special needs, in Kitchener, Ont. (Light House)

As well, there is an after school program, a bi-weekly Saturday program for children between the ages of six and 13, evening programming for those over the age of 14 and scheduled events for teens on P.D. days, March Break and during the summer. The cost of the programs range, starting at $25 for the after school program and increasing, depending on the needs of the individuals.

Barrow said parents can either pay for the program privately or with passport funding, which is provided by the provincial government to help adults with developmental disabilities take part in community programs.

The space on River Road E., also has a sensory room that has features for sight, sound, and touch to help people decompress and relax their nervous system, Barrow said.

'I wanted to get right into it'

Barrow believes in the need for the centre so much that she took out a personal loan to get it started.

"I wanted to do this yesterday, I wanted to get right into it, so I took out a personal loan to build this and open this and get right into it. It's all funded by myself," she said.

"The whole not-for-profit process takes so long and while I would like to become not-for-profit someday, I just needed to do this now. Life's too short. It's a big risk, but it's one I'm willing to take."

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