Josh Fielding-Singh, 22, recently developed a strong sense of determination, and feels like he’s working to be the best version of himself. He credits a lot of that positive energy and momentum in his life to Chapel Haven West.
“I remember the first day I moved here, I was like ‘Wow! This is a new habitat!’ he said.
Chapel Haven West, located in Tucson, is a community service institute which offers a residential transition program in addition to lifelong support for adults with mild developmental disabilities.
Josh’s journey to Chapel Haven included a challenging childhood. According to his foster mother, Cynthia, Josh was born 13 weeks premature, has cerebral palsy and endured about a dozen orthopedic surgeries “so he could walk straight.”
Despite Josh’s disabilities, the Fielding-Singh family wanted to provide him an opportunity to lead a healthy, independent lifestyle after high school. Chapel Haven West was their destination.
“We were looking for an organization that could deal with a young adult with autistic spectrum disorder, and there were a few around the country,” Cynthia said. “But then we found [Chapel Haven West] and it just happened it was here… we were lucky.”
Chapel Haven West has been accommodating young adults like Josh for over 40 years. Over that time, the organization has trained and educated young adults on the autism spectrum and those with different disabilities so that they may realize their own potential and lead successful lives.
Chapel Haven West Inc. in Tucson operates a transitional housing program through which they train and support adults on the autism spectrum over the course of 24-month curriculum.
Chapel Haven Inc. began in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1972. According to Chapel Haven West Executive Director Ken Hosto, a group of families with young adults, sons and daughters coming out of private, special education settings realized their children had learned how to be special education students—but they hadn’t learned how to live independently. The need to accommodate these individuals inspired the creation of a residential program.
Since its Tucson founding in 2008, the two-year residential program has provided that knowledge and hands-on experience, all while resident students acquire university level credits and academic experience through a unique association with the University of Arizona.
The UA Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences works hand-in-hand with Chapel Haven by providing speech-language graduate interns to work with the young adults on the autism spectrum.
According to Cass Faux, clinical assistant professor of speech-language pathology, the department’s primary focus is to work on pragmatic language. This entails helping students who struggle to communicate verbally with their surroundings.
“There’s a strong focus in their social abilities, both verbally and nonverbally,” Faux said.
The department tackles students’ communication skills, and throughout the two-year curriculum, graduate interns provide students with the necessary assistance to help overcome social challenges related to communication.
Sarah Etters-Thomas, one of the graduate interns, said she focuses on fostering students’ social interactions. Along with her colleagues, they address appropriate communication within work and academic settings. Common challenges for people with autism spectrum disorder include “reading between the lines,” like picking up on the subtleties of facial expressions, and processing figurative language like sarcasm.
“It’s a very direct teaching environment,” Etters-Thomas said. “It’s very practical and applicable for young adults at university age so they could go into other university classes or work setting and be successful.”
The University of Arizona works on setting individualized goals for each of the participants, and then addresses those goals in the context of group activities.
Hosto said that working with the young adults not only benefits their individuals lives, but the perception of autism in the community. Hosto said pre-conceived notions about individuals on the autism spectrum can create a new set of challenges. By working with students to find success in their own lives, Hosto said Chapel Haven has begun to change those stereotypes.
“Many people had a pre-formed idea of what a young adult on the autism spectrum was, what they look like, what their abilities are going to be., Hosto said. “So, we had to use our students and their successes to open doors into the community.”
Chapel Haven also connects with different organizations throughout the local community to create opportunities for students to integrate with the community and gain first-hand experience. Students are provided with internships at places like World Care, Arizona Theatre Company and Compass Affordable Housing. Students also receive necessary support to develop good budgetary habits, healthy diets, learn to shop, acquire housing and more.
Cynthia commended her son’s development over his time at Chapel Haven. She said that her son’s experience and the new, independent lifestyle he’s developed over the past two years has instilled in Josh a sense of self-reliance, self-realization and individuality. He’s already applied his new skills to learn how to use the ride-service Uber, manage his budget, order his own groceries and maintain an apartment.
“It helped me grow as a person,” Josh said.
Jamie Rabinowitz, 27, originally from New York, graduated from Chapel Haven in 2012. Rabinowitz said the program and the internship opportunities the transitional program allowed him have kick-started his independent and more productive life.
“I had a good experience here,” Rabinowitz said. “I was able to improve on social skills which I learned before with the help of someone else in New York.”
Rabinowitz originally looked at the Asperger’s program in Connecticut. Following advice from the team there, Rabinowitz’s family chose to send him to Tucson.
Parents send their sons and daughters from around the country (and internationally) to Chapel Haven program. Hosto said it’s a “leap of faith” on the part of the family, but that the program is prepared to change lives.
After graduation, Hosto said most students stay in Tucson to continue working or go to college.
“The thing I learned from our students is just don’t give up; the continued drive and pushing forward because I see the path isn’t easy for these students,” Hosto said. “I realize that the challenges I face in my life are pretty small compared to the challenges my students face.”
Josh and his colleagues graduated Saturday, June 9, marking the tenth graduating class from Chapel Haven West.
Dalal Radwan is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.