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Road safety speeds up at LifeTown, a center for inclusion

Gift from Lithia Motors and DCH Audi Millburn enhances pedestrian-safety curriculum at center for individuals with special needs

Pedestrian-safety skills at LifeTown in New Jersey. Credit: Courtesy of LifeTown.
Pedestrian-safety skills at LifeTown in New Jersey. Credit: Courtesy of LifeTown.

For individuals with special needs, finding a safe and comforting place to learn and practice pedestrian safety can be a challenge. Many roads are too busy, drivers are too impatient, and the noise levels can be distracting.

Last year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation authorizing the state’s Department of Transportation to upgrade its own Complete Streets policies and projects to allow “persons diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities to travel independently.”

This need is particularly acute in the Garden State since it has the highest rate of autism in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When the creators of LifeTown—a 53,000-square-foot educational, social and recreational center in Northern New Jersey for individuals with special needs—set about building their center, they created a road with stop signs and a crosswalk as part of their indoor “Main Street.”

Brian Lam, northeast regional vice president Lithia Motors/DCH Audi Millburn, gets a tour of the LifeTown Shoppes from Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum. Photo by Nick and Kelly Photography.

It found a partner in DCH Audi Millburn, which likewise recognized the importance of having a welcoming and safe space for kids to learn road safety skills.

Now the two groups, along with DCH Audi Millburn’s parent company Lithia Motors, have teamed up again to enhance the road and the pedestrian-safety skills curriculum at LifeTown. Thanks to a gift from Lithia and DCH, LifeTown was able to make much-needed upgrades, including new electronic traffic and crosswalk signals.

Brian Lam, Northeast Regional vice president of Lithia and DCH Audi Millburn, has the chance to see the road and its improvements in action earlier this month during a visit to LifeTown in recognition of National Disability Awareness Month.

“With New Jersey being the epicenter of autism in the United States, this really satisfies a need for these individuals and their families,” said Lam. “This is fantastic. It adds such benefit to the community.”

With thousands of children and teens with special needs visiting LifeTown each month with their schools, upgrades to the pedestrian safety program were seen as a vital next step in its educational program.

Staff from DCH Audi Millburn and LifeTown mark “road improvements” to the LifeTown Shoppes experience. From left, Toba Grossbaum, LifeTown; Shonta Scott Belfield, DCH Audi Millburn; Dawn McAdam, DCH Audi Millburn; Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, LifeTown; Brian Lam, DCH Audi Millburn/Lithia Motors; Al Khouri, DCH Audi Millburn; Megan Leone, DCH Audi Millburn. Photo by Nick and Kelly Photography.

“LifeTown has been open for a few years now, and we are seeing the real impact that it is having. Teachers and therapists are letting us know what works well and what can be enhanced to further improve the educational components of the LifeTown Shoppes,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of LifeTown.

As part of pedestrian safety training, children can ride a bike in the street or walk around the sidewalks; learn to adhere to the signs and streetlights; and follow the directions of a crossing guard.

As Lithia and DCH Audi Millburn employees saw during their visit, teachers follow along with the students, especially during their first “lap” around town, to ensure they understand the rules of the road. When one young visitor tried to walk against a traffic light, his teacher was quick to point out the light was red and reminded him that meant he couldn’t walk across the street. Another child was “stopped” when her bike attempted to ride over the crosswalk, even as the crossing guard was holding up a “Stop” sign.

Schools from across the tristate region and beyond bring students to LifeTown, where they can practice time and money management, social skills and more.

“When children come to LifeTown, they are fully engaged and having fun,” says Grossbaum. “They don’t realize that they are gaining real-world skills while they shop, walk or bike.”

This environment is made possible thanks to corporate and local sponsors. In addition to DCH Audi Millburn and Lithia Motors, those sponsors include the National Football League (NFL), the New York Jets, ShopRite supermarkets and RWJ Barnabas Health. Not only have these companies invested financially, but their staff have volunteered at LifeTown. Such efforts are particularly meaningful to the families of individuals with special needs as it shows the community cares about them and is working toward a more inclusive world.

LifeTown in Livingston was started by Grossbaum and his wife, Toba, and inspired by the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson—who was an early advocate for inclusion.

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LifeTown in Livingston, N.J., is a 53,000-square-foot fully inclusive and accessible center where everyone celebrates and experiences life together. It offers a myriad of opportunities for recreation, education and therapeutic play aimed at providing a comprehensive slate of programming for individuals with special needs and their families. LifeTown was inspired by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.
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