2017-07-05 / Features

House to Home

The ACRES Project is breathing new life into an old house, where local adults on the autism spectrum will get the opportunity to spread their wings.
Robyn Passante

Out at 2400 Bernal Road the walls are layered with fresh paint and promise, as an old building gets a new chapter with intentions and dreams as good as the ones that laid its foundation nearly 40 years ago.

In 1980, local architect Frederick Fernsler designed the building that would for many years be used to assist Centre County’s underprivileged kids through The Second Mile. By now everyone in the Centre Region and beyond knows the tragedy that befell that organization. But after years of sitting vacant, the 3,200-square-foot house on 2 acres of open field is once again primed to help local children and young adults — thanks in part to Fernsler’s son, Adam.

“It was kind of a full circle thing for our family,” Adam Fernsler says of purchasing the property with partner Frank Peno late last year to be the home base for the ACRES (Adults Creating Residential and Employment Solutions) Project. The ACRES Project will offer educational and social programs, job opportunities and transitional living to the county’s residents on the autism spectrum.

“I think it’s set up perfectly to start the program,” says Fernsler, a previous ACRES board member who with Peno bought the property for $265,000 and put an additional $125,000 into its renovations. The plan is for the nonprofit to lease the property for three years before buying it for the same price Fernsler and Peno paid. “The price tag and location and the size of it were a pretty nice fit.”

We’re trying to give them some skills so they can manage and move on their own." —Bella Bregar

Christine, whose 26-year-old son Shawn is severely autistic, says the history of the house actually adds to its appeal. “It’s the bones of something really beautiful.”

Figart’s mom is among a small army of volunteers who’ve been sanding, painting, fundraising and planning to carry out the mission begun by Bella Bregar, a retired teacher who spent 38 years educating and learning from special needs students in the State College Area School District.

“Everything that went into heBella Bregar, second from left, stands with ACRES volunteer Darlene Maple and Penn State students who helped the nonprofit create its business plan.Bella Bregar, second from left, stands with ACRES volunteer Darlene Maple and Penn State students who helped the nonprofit create its business is what I’ve learned from them,” says Bregar of the unique features of the house and the programs they’ll offer.

The basement and main floor of the home will feature a sensory room with toolkits available for each individual’s sensory needs; exercise equipment; a gracious kitchen and large open meeting space for parent support group meetings and social activities; and an animal room with three guinea pigs, a rabbit, two parakeets and Spike, the 40-year-old turtle Bregar had in her classroom.

Mary KrupaMary KrupaClasses and planned programs include social skills, pottery, candle making, weaving, cooking, interview skills and job training through a virtual reality system, where individuals can “try out” a job to see whether they would be suited for it in real life.

“We’re trying to give them some skills so they can manage and move on their own,” Bregar says. To that end, the building has been renovated to accommodate two full-time residents who will live on the second floor, complete with their own bedrooms and a shared bathroom, laundry facilities, living room and kitchenette.

“We’re hoping to help them figure out: What is it you really need to live independently? How are you on getting to your job? How are you on making sure you have the right amount of food to eat per week? How are you on getting along with someone? How are you at preparing your own meals? A lot of them rely on their parents to make their meals. They’re used to looking in the refrigerator and having it stocked,” Bregar says.

One parent volFrank PenoFrank Penounteer has offered to teach cooking classes tailored to the needs and tastes of each student.
“So many adults with autism have specific food likes and dislikes. They eat the same thing all the time,” she says. “So she’s going to find out what they like to eat. If you like eggs, she’s going to teach 10 ways to work with eggs. We want to make it specific to them and something that they actually use.”

Jordan Stephenson, 24, could be one of the home’s first full-time residents. Stephenson, diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 16, is finishing up her degree in applied technology with a concentration in occupational therapy from Penn College. She has enjoyed being on her own amid the relative safety and convenience of dorm life, where meals are made and social activities are planned.

Stephenson is on the ACRES’ young adult advisory board, and says this type of residential opportunity was a top priority for her and her peers.

“The two big things a lot of us wanted were housing and social programming,” says Stephenson, who describes herself as social but also says it’s a struggle. “I love getting out, staying active and doing stuff. I just don’t know how to socialize sometimes. I used to ask a million questions or give a bunch of information. To socialize appropriately is definitely harder for me.”

Social programs for all different ages will be a big ACRES priority, Bregar says. And that will give parents an opportunity to learn from and support one another as well.

Darlene MapleDarlene MapleDarlene Maple, a parent volunteer who spent time painting the old walls new last month, is excited for the social opportunities her 32-year-old daughter Rebecca will be able to participate in.

“I don’t know of anything else in the area that would give her what she needs. She needs to be more independent. She has a college degree but has not been able to find a job, and I think that’s a sad fact for a lot of people on the spectrum,” Maple says. “She’s got the intellectual ability, but in terms of the social skills that are needed to interact in almost any kind of work environment, that’s just really difficult.”

Stephenson’s mother, Elizabeth, is equally hopeful for what this new home away from home will be for her daughter and others like her.

Having a community where there are others on the spectrum and they’re all trying to have a community and live independently is just a dream come true." —Elizabeth Stephenson

“It’ll create community,” she says. “Having a community where there are others on the spectrum and they’re all trying to have a community and live independently is just a dream come true.”
Eventually the group aims to install an aquaponics greenhouse system for entrepreneurial experience and fundraising opportunities.

“The aquaponics will be a totally adult-run business,” Bregar says. “The adults [on the autism spectrum] will do the setup, they’ll check the fish, they’ll make the seeds, they’ll check the pH, and then they’ll market [the produce].”

Mary Krupa, ACRES’ first part-time staff member, lights up when talking about the group’s business plan.

“It’s seed to table in 38Bella BregarBella Bregar to 45 days for lettuce. And you get three times the yield,” says Krupa, who also serves on the nonprofit’s young adult advisory board. “I get so excited about aquaponics because I’m a sustainability geek and I wrote all the text for the website. You use 90 percent less water than conventional farming, you don’t have to use pesticides because there’s no dirt, which means there’s no weeds, so it’s completely organic.”

Krupa’s passion and sense of purpose are plain to see, illustrating that even before it really gets off the ground, the original goal for ACRES — to fill the needs that arise for individuals with autism once they hit adulthood — is already being met. •SCM

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