‘We can actually live on our own’ Conway community for people with autism opens first home

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Plans for Oak Tree Farm.
Courtesy: WBTW

CONWAY, S.C. (WBTW) — Justin Borrero has lived in his new house for three weeks. At 30 years old, it’s his first time living away from his family, something he was both anxious and excited about.

“Years ago, I probably wouldn’t even have thought this would have been a possibility,” he said. 

Borrero is one of five men who have moved into the newly-opened transition house at Oak Tree Farm, a 10-acre housing community from SOS Care geared at providing affordable housing for individuals with autism or intellectual disabilities. When finished, the community will house about 150 adults in apartment-style homes.

About one in 90 children in South Carolina — and one in 55 boys — have been diagnosed with autism, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national rate is one in 54 children and rising, a trend that’s been attributed to improvements in recognizing and diagnosing the developmental disorder as opposed to a larger prevalence of the condition. 

More than 4,000 people in Horry County have autism or an intellectual disability, according to a study conducted by SOS Care.

Sarah Pope, the organization’s CEO, said Oak Tree Farm has been in the works for about five years. The project has partially been fueled by parents’ worries about their children’s futures.

“We have always wondered about what would happen when we are not here anymore,” Pope said. “That’s the cliffhanger for every parent of a child with a disability.”

The goal is for Oak Tree Farm to become a community where adults with disabilities can be together and feel safe. 

Except for walls built to eliminate noise from roommates, the transition house is like any other home. 

SOS Care checks in on the residents daily. A wholistic coach stops by to teach the residents how to cook, live a healthy lifestyle and shop for groceries. It’s something, Pope said, the adults’ families usually did.

“That is one of the things we see as a deficit,” she said.

People with disabilities experience what’s referred to as the “services cliff” once they hit 21 and age out of supports they qualified for as children. SOS has tried to fill those needs with the creation of Oak Tree Farm, along with offering customized employment services to help people with disabilities become independent. The transition house was built to help residents get comfortable at living away from their families.

The house’s oldest resident is 45 years old.

The community’s purpose isn’t only to provide a safe place to live, but an affordable one, as well. Oak Tree Farm’s $500 a month rent will fill Horry County’s gap of sustainable housing for people with disabilities. 

In South Carolina, 30.2% of people with a disability between the ages of 21 and 64 were living below the poverty line in 2014, and only 28% were employed, according to the Horry County Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice.

Due to their conditions, the people with disabilities might only able to work in minimum wage jobs, and employers are legally able to pay people with disabilities as little as $1 an hour.

“These guys can become homeless and can be incredibly vulnerable in a homeless-type situation,” Pope said. “So we like to take care of them before we get to the point where that happens.”

Oak Tree Farm’s next phase begins in the spring and grow the community to house another 48 people. It also plans to have a community center that will offer social skills programs, job coaching and recreational opportunities. 

The organization is raising about $1 million to construct the building.

There are currently 200 people looking to move into the community, according to Kim Stuber, the program director of SOS Care, and the organization has fielded calls from people who live outside of the state who are interested in it.

Borrero, who was diagnosed with autism in 2018, had participated in SOS Care’s life skills programs before the transition home opened last month. The classes covered basic home maintenance topics like changing lightbulbs and air filters, how to use a vacuum, how to cook and how to wash dishes. 

He has a roommate agreement that outlines how they’ll manage chores, use storage space and get groceries. 

The residents previously knew each other from the life skills classes. Borrero said they’ve even had a few pizza parties so far.

“It is really exciting, I’d say, that we can actually live on our own,” he said. 

Living with roommates who have common diagnoses means they’ve been able to help each other by sharing their own experiences and not having to explain their health conditions.

“It is not something that we have to learn and try to understand better, since we all have similar struggles and similar things to deal with,” Borrero said. 

Pope said that many people with autism or intellectual disabilities haven’t had good experiences with being around people who are neurotypical. Being together, she said, means they don’t have to worry about bullying, and are around people who work and respect each other.

“A lot of other humans have been programmed to be judgmental and discriminate, and these guys aren’t like that,” she said. 

She’s proud of how the first five adults have adjusted to life in the transition home. She’s watched them work as a team and become more independent, like in a recent situation where they were texting to come up with a plan for how to get food delivered when the area didn’t have signage yet.

“They are using each other as resources to try and solve a problem, which is something they have never had to do before,” Pope said.

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