Live Life with Purpose and Joy
Alison and John Kelley have learned to celebrate the “inch marks.”
For parents caring and loving children living on the autism spectrum or with other neuro-diversities (differences in brain function and behavioral traits) the traditional childhood “milestones” are hard to come by.
The Kelleys understand. They adopted their son Joshua, 19, from Russia when he was a toddler.
“He is just precious,” said Alison. “When we adopted him, we knew he had some form of emotional or academic disabilities; we just didn’t know what form.”
Joshua is high-functioning autistic, which means he doesn’t live with severe intellectual disabilities but struggles in areas of communication, social interaction, and understanding the basic day-to-day processes that young adults need to manage to be independent.
Joshua graduated from Hill School, a K – 12 school that works with students who have different learning styles. But after graduation, the Kelleys didn’t know what do to for him or where to go. Traditional college wasn’t an option, and he needed more education, support, and a plan for the future.
“He needed life skills that I couldn’t teach him,” said Alison.
She found her answer — and her son’s future — on 29 heavily-wooded acres near Denton. Aptly named for the large campus where it resides, 29 Acres is a supportive living community located in the small town of Cross Roads. The nonprofit was founded in 2015 to provide a supportive living community to adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neuro-diversities. It accepted its first class of students in 2017.
“We looked everywhere for programs for him,” said Alison. “There’s just nothing else like this in Texas.”
Alison knows he’ll be safe there, which for young adults like Joshua, is a major concern.
“Kids like Joshua lack the ability to logically reason right from wrong,” said Alison. “So you worry about the weekends and after school hours. But here, they have 24-hour security. They keep them so busy.”
“Our overall goal is for people to be empowered and live life with purpose and joy,” said Jenna Curry, Director of 29 Acres’ Transition Academy. “That’s our big thing.” Building self-confidence in a safe supportive community helps make that possible. The center has various programs designed to do just that depending on the need of the individual client and his or her family.
29 Acres’ two-year residential program, the Transition Academy, teaches independent living and career readiness skills, helping residents with jobs and internships through its partnership with local business and other nonprofits. The goal is to prepare these young adults to ultimately live independently and be able to have a job that supports and empowers their life. To help achieve that goal, residents take 32 courses on career readiness and independent living taught at the University of North Texas.
It comes with a hefty price tag for parents or caregivers.
Allison says the two-year program is about the same cost as a four-year state university. “It’s twice the tuition of Texas A&M… but he’s going to come out [and] prosper.”
Graduates from the Transitional Academy do prosper. Over 83 percent of graduates live independently from their parents and the same number have jobs.
That’s a huge percentage, when nationally, 87 percent of adult children with autism live at home with their parents. The number of people living with ASD is growing, too. The Centers for Disease Control reported a 10 percent increase in the number of ASD diagnoses since 2014. As of 2020, 1 in 54 individuals in the U.S. have autism; Texas is second to only California in the number of cases.
Jenna says that so far, the nonprofit has served 80 residents in total and 40 through its Transitional Academy; it’ll be accepting another 13 when the next class begins August 10.
“Joshua fell in love with it,” said Alison. “You just walk on the campus, and there’s so much love and good vibes.”
Evidence-based programming and the metrics of its success say a lot about the viability of the program. But so do its former students:
“29 Acres has helped me to learn how to take care of myself,” said Carson, 21, a Transition Academy graduate. “It has taught me all about adulting. I think the most important thing I learned was how to do my deep cleans and working on cleaning and maintaining my room. I have learned to control and enhance my abilities. I want everyone to know that people with Autism are really fun to hang out with. Transition Academy may be hard and there may be challenges, but it’s overall worth it. You’re in control of your own destiny.”
For more than a decade, Sarah Angle has worked as a Texas-based writer. She began her career as a daily newspaper reporter and photographer, and now teaches in the School of Strategic Communication at TCU. Sarah lives in Fort Worth with her darling daughter and a house full of books and mid-century modern décor.