It was a huge moment for Tyler Schmalenberger, as the 20-year-old with Autism Spectrum Disorder unlocked the door that would open to his first-ever apartment.
If the The Gersh Experience in Patchogue is successful, it won’t be the last time he’s away from mom and dad.
“You’re turning the key on the rest of your life,” said Tristen Stegmaier, the program’s director, as a small audience formed around Tyler in a hallway in downtown’s New Village at Patchogue complex Friday.
“I’m kind of happy moving out of my parents’ house,” he admitted beforehand, with his dad, Keith, at his side.
The Gersh Experience is part of a larger network of schools and programs that educates special needs children of all ages on Long Island.
But, as the company’s founder, Kevin Gersh, pointed out during a June open house event for The Gersh Experience, there’s a void in services for college-age students with ASD. That means after their high school careers are over, students and their families often find themselves at a loss for where to turn next.
“I was educating kids who were fulfilling New York State’s standards and getting their diplomas but they couldn’t go to college because they weren’t independent,” Gersh said.
Seeing a need, he opened the two-year program for young adults in Buffalo seven years ago, before moving The Gersh Experience to Patchogue this year.
“I have kids that can go to Harvard and get straight A’s, but they can’t order a burger,” he said.
The students in Patchogue — seven are enrolled, currently — will be taking college and high school-level classes at various educational institutions in Suffolk County — all while learning to live on their own.
As far as Autism Spectrum Disorder goes, the students are all classified as high-functioning.
They’ll be doing laundry, going grocery shopping, and, perhaps most importantly, learning to live with one another in close quarters. The program provides tutoring, counseling and around-the-clock supervision from RAs.
After going through the program, Gersh said, a student should be able to go off to college or find a job and a place to live that’s not with a parent.
“And get girlfriends or boyfriends,” he said. “Because it’s also about forming meaningful relationships.”
Steve Giangaspro, a Gersh Experience life skills coordinator, told Tyler on move-in day Friday that he and his roommate should expect visits from him on a daily basis
“Day to day, I’ll be doing household management,” he said. “I’ll be coming to check on the apartments. The checklist [of chores] is pretty thorough.”
“On Mondays I’ll be teaching a money management workshop,” he explained to the room. “It’s designed to help maintain a budget to deal with daily expenses with grocery shopping and utilities, because the gas and electric is under their names. It’s about budgeting and about energy efficiency.”
Although The Gersh Experience is relatively pricey at $5,500 a month, Gersh and Stegmaier said there could be funding available through local school districts, and possibly through other avenues.
Stegmaier even envisions a type of Gersh Experience endowment one day, to offer scholarships to help families of all means.
As for the inaugural year in Patchogue, Stegmaier said in June that the people of the village “are going to fall in love with these kids.”
As he and Tyler rode an elevator crowded with staffers and Tyler’s stuff on move-in day, Stegmaier couldn’t help but notice the young man, who had previously been enrolled in The Gersh Academy in Hauppauge, had some dark facial hair coming in.
“I’m growing a beard — slash other things,” Tyler informed him.
“Slash other things?” Stegmaier responded. “You piqued my curiosity but I’m not going to ask.”
“I’m sorry; I have no idea what that meant,’ Tyler said.
He had the crowd giggling.
Tyler’s dad said the family’s going to have a tough time not having him around.