This month, September 2013, Joan Rodriguez opens the only after school program for youth ages 13-22 with disabilities in St. Lucie West, St. Lucie County, Florida. Named appropriately after her daughter, a young woman with Down syndrome, Ali’s Place is a program which will teach socialization, life skills and self-sufficiency to those who attend. The goal: ready these youth for work in the community after high school graduation.
Joann Rodriguez is a two-year brain cancer survivor. Her inspiration for this start-up is her daughter, Ali. Ali attends a local public high school in St. Lucie County where she is in the 11th grade. When Ali was born, a hospital employee asked Joann if she would like to give her daughter up for adoption. Shocked, Joann responded, “No!” Her thoughts were, ‘She’s beautiful.’
Down syndrome occurs in one in every 691 babies in the United States, affecting all races. It is caused when a fetus has a “full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21,” which alters the baby’s development. In the U.S. there are more than 400,000 people with the Down syndrome.
In the past, people with Down syndrome lived shortened lives, usually until around age 25 (1983), but because of new medical technology and pharmaceuticals, today, life expectancy for Down syndrome has risen to age 60. These citizens work, act, run businesses, vote, and are employees. Some even write news columns.
Chris Burke played Corky Thacher on ABC’s “Life Goes On.” Today he writes a monthly column and is a member of the National Down Syndrome Society acting as a Goodwill Ambassador.
Tim Harris is the owner of the restaurant Tim’s Place. Tim has been featured on CBS and NBC. He is a Special Olympics athlete.
According to the National Down Syndrome Society, the keys are “quality educational programs, a stimulating home environment, good health care and positive family and community support.”
“Youth with disabilities can be a valuable part of society,” says mother Joann Rodriguez. She speaks from firsthand experience.
Conney Dahn, Florida State Teacher of the Year, who is an expert in teaching those with disabilities says this: I believe there’s a place for them.” (Prior to the recession, 90% of Dahn’s high school graduates found jobs through a Career Experience program, much like that of Ali’s Place.)
Ali’s Place is working with local businesses who have agreed to bring youth from her program into their work places as volunteers for training. One such business is the Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop in St. Lucie West, Florida. More local businesses are needed to open their doors and allow the youth to have on-the-job-training.
Ali’s Place is open to youth, not just with Down syndrome, but also to other youth with disabilities. It is licensed and insured and Ali’s Place is a Medicaid Waiver provider. The program costs $50 weekly. It is located in St. Lucie West at: 590 NW Peacock Blvd. St Lucie West in Port St. Lucie, 7th Door in back of building
The program employs a behavior tech who has experience within the public school setting, a sign language teacher, and several volunteers.
Behind Ali’s Place is a Board:
- Port St. Lucie Police Officer Gerry Cantalupo
- Port St. Lucie Police Officer Joe Diskin
- Lindsey Duren
- Elizabeth Wehreim Osler—an Occupational Therapist
- Jennifer Ortiz—Director of the Treasure Coast Angels in Port St. Lucie, Florida
Joann Rodriguez emphasizes that there is no other program like this in St. Lucie County where she estimates that there are approximately 300 youth who could qualify for Ali’s Place.
A mother-daughter team who have persevered and are helping to change the world, Joann and Ali Rodriguez are not just Hometown Heroes, but pioneers in a modern culture.
To contact Joann Rodriguez with questions or to find out more information about Ali’s Place, email her at: email@example.com or phone her at 772-209-2086
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© 2013 "Hometown Heroes" Kelly Jadon