Mornings begin with independent skill time, when Bianca can take part in her favorite activity — stringing beads to make keychains. She and a small group of other young adults are learning how to become independent citizens through the adult vocational training program at OCA, which has expanded into West Orange County.
The new location, at Purpose Church on West Colonial Drive in Winter Garden, offers a closer option for local people with special needs and their families.
Silvia Haas is the executive director of OCA, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. She opened the second location in December. The first, located on Eli Street in Orlando, was opened a decade ago.
“After the age of 22, all programming stops for people with special needs,” Haas said. “We believe at OCA on working on mind, body and spirit: Opportunity, Community, Ability.”
In the Orange County Public Schools system, students on the autism spectrum and those with other special needs can continue attending high school until age 22. But, what happens to them after that?
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
“Everything they’ve been taught in school — we want to make sure we are still working on those skill sets, because we want them to continue to gain independent-living skills,” Haas said. “The more independent they become, the fewer supports they will need as they age.”
Participants worked recently on laundry sorting and various kitchen activities, such as setting the table, washing dishes and wiping the counters.
Repetition is important to the clients, Haas said.
And it takes a dedicated, patient and well-trained staff to assist the clients in perfecting their everyday tasks. Each knows how to effectively communicate.
“All (staff members) are trained in applied behavior analysis, the first therapeutic model to work with people with special needs,” she said.
Three certified staff members work with 10 participants at the Winter Garden site. Smaller ratios make it easier for individuals to reach their goals, Haas said.
The staffers work on generalizing, which means a student can learn to fold towels at OCA and then can go work at the YMCA, for example, and fold towels there.
They work on social skills, recreational skills, cooking and guided meditation. An occupational therapist provides activities for the clients.
Every week is the same at OCA, providing consistency for clients. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, they are in Winter Garden from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays are longer days — until 3:30 p.m. — and they all go to the main campus, where they engage in their regular activities plus music and dance therapies.
“We really believe in using a multi-disciplinary approach because using different therapeutic models allows our participants to gain more experiences (and) the more independent they can become,” Haas said.
“Day in and day out that’s what we strive for,” she said. “We end up trying to create an environment for them to be successful in.”
OCA has various partners in the community that allow the individuals to experience a work environment. On days that they work, they don their uniform — a collared shirt with the OCA logo — so they look professional.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, they engage in vocational work, such as cleaning the exercise equipment, at the Dr. Phillips YMCA. On Thursdays, they visit First Baptist Church Windermere to engage in clerical work, such as stuffing and sorting.
When they are in Orlando on Wednesdays and Fridays, they train at Outback Steakhouse or Chili’s.
OCA partners with Love Your Neighbors Books for another job opportunity — an Amazon book drive. Through the book program, OCA collects donated books of any type. The OCA students then categorize them prior to selling and ship them after they are purchased.
“Our participants have to count how many are in a box, they have to sort how many hardback and paperback, used, gently used and new,” Haas said. “They scan the books into Amazon. … They print out the labels, they tape it. They do it all from beginning to end.
“Every person can do something within that program,” she said. “It’s probably the most popular program, to them, because it’s meaningful.”
Haas told the story of one individual who did nothing but lie on the floor when she first started attending OCA. If the staff could get her to do an activity, it only was for a short time. After being introduced to the Amazon program, the woman now will work up to an hour and a half nonstop.
“It’s about, first of all, believing that they have abilities, and finding what their strengths are and capitalizing on them,” Haas said.
Field trips to places such as a bowling alley or movie theater give participants another chance to become more independent in the community.
Silvia and Todd Haas have three sons, the youngest of whom is non-vocal and needs round-the-clock care.
“He can’t speak, but he can make sounds and can sign and has other ways of communicating,” Haas said. “He’s a happy-go-lucky guy. He’s in our AVT program now. He makes us better people. He really does. He keeps our family grounded. … Teaching has always been my passion; I never thought I would work with special needs.”
A decade ago, Haas met three women who worked with and formed a special relationship with her son, Matthew, now 23. She, Margaret Thornton, Jenny Griffith and Sabrina Sharpe wanted to create an organization that could benefit families like hers.
In 2009, they started the nonprofit OCA in Orlando with 19 families and organized Special Olympics camps and social-skills training programs. The client list quickly grew to 125.
Two years later, Haas quit her 17-year teaching career and took on OCA full time.
Today, there is a therapy clinic and early-intervention clinic, and Haas plans to open a Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program this summer. There is a theater company, too, and clients perform shows three times a year.
Last summer, Haas took 10 participants to the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle.
“We came home national champions,” she said. “That was amazing.”
Haas said she’s grateful for the partnership with Purpose Church, which allows her to use part of its property. The unit has a kitchen, living area and office space so the OCA team can work on a variety of life skills, regardless of the participants’ functioning levels.
Scholarships are available for individuals who don’t receive state Medicaid waiver funding.
Haas said the ultimate vision of OCA is to build a village where individuals with special needs can live, work and play.
“The parents are asking, ‘We’re getting older; who is going to care for them? Where are they going to live?’”
OCA has put together a housing committee that is actively seeking to acquire at least 10 acres of land for residential housing and programming, possibly in West Orange or Lake counties.
“Without passion you have no drive,” Haas said. “These guys drive us to have more passion in what we do. Their spirit is them. We believe we have divine intervention that’s always been with us, but their spirit is infectious when they’re alive and engaged, (and) it makes the staff want to do so much more.
“Our core values are teamwork, respect, innovation and passion, and it’s our belief that there’s that respect for the participant and their needs and what they can contribute,” she said. “At the end of the day we know they are contributing members, we just have to show them.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.