While there are many programs for children with mental disabilities throughout school, what happens when they graduate? A group of local parents wrestling with this question in extremely personal circumstances came together in search of a solution in 2012 when they created the Aurelia Foundation, a nonprofit with the goal of creating a day center that offers continued education to mentally disabled adults.
A little over a year later, in September 2013, Creative Steps was created. The Santa Monica-based program offers life skills, recreational activities, vocational training and job support to adults with disabilities.
“We were very concerned that there weren’t any optimal programs for our young adults after they completed school,” Kym Karath, chair of the Aurelia Foundation, said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity for them to continue growing and developing.”
Karath has a son, Eric, with special needs who is a “very happy member” of the Creative Steps program. He has benefited in many ways from the program, including growing independence, verbal and communication skills, and continuing to strive, Karath said.
“The program offers excellent one-on-one [interaction] for our children,” Karath added. “A huge disservice was done to these young adults for many, many years and it’s really very tragic.”
Lisa Szilagyi, who Karath refers to as the “heart and soul of the program,” is the founder and program director of Creative Steps. She has taught special education at Malibu High School for more than 12 years. The inspiration behind Creative Steps was her 24-year-old daughter with a genetic disorder.
“There weren’t many good adult programs out there for her once she graduated,” Szilagyi said. “She would be home with a caregiver all day and was very isolated.
The statistics are horrifying; the majority end up isolated and alone. And I knew that we had to create a society for these adults so they can have fulfilled lives.”
Szilagyi partnered with Shelly Cox, founder of Step by Step, in Santa Monica. Step by Step provides early childhood programs for children with disabilities, but it didn’t have an adult program. In September 2013, Szilagyi and Cox created Creative Steps for adults ages 18 and above.
“We currently have 18 clients,” Szilagyi said. “Our youngest is 18 years old and our oldest is 46 years old. There is a tremendous need for these types of programs.”
The Creative Steps program caters to adults with moderate to severe disabilities and provides a safe, caring, enriching environment that helps individuals achieve their full potential as contributing, valued members of their community.
The program emphasizes job skills, self-advocacy, recreational activities, vocational activities, daily living/self-help skills and social connections.
“They have the potential to learn all their lives,” Szilagyi said. “We want them to have a full, healthy and active life.”
The program offers a wide range of basic life skills, including how to buy and prepare food and how to do laundry. The program also helps clients get jobs and get paid for their work so they feel productive. Recreational activities are also important and clients are taught how to lead a healthy lifestyle by doing different exercises and yoga.
Clients are funded through many different regional centers. The Aurelia Foundation funds equipment and is hoping to raise the funds to acquire vans for client transportation.
“One of the regional center workers visited our Santa Monica location and had tears in her eyes to see how happy the clients are,” Szilagyi said. “She said she’s waited a long time for a program like mine to come to the Westside.”
With both having children with disabilities, Szilagyi and Cox understand and work closely with clients’ parents. Many parents have expressed how well their children are doing in the program and the behavioral changes they’ve seen, Szilagyi said.
Creative Steps is expanding to Thousand Oaks and Szilagyi hopes to raise the funds to open a Malibu location soon.
“I feel like the Malibu community has so many wonderful things to offer,” Szilagyi said. “We really hope to get a place in Malibu. It will be such a great opportunity for clients.”
“We would absolutely benefit from a Malibu location,” Karath said. “We live in Malibu West and it would be much better to have Eric in his community in Malibu, which he loves.”