Terry Herbstritt is the Development Director of PACTT Learning Center, where he has worked for the past 10 years. He is a father of three, including a 27-year-old man with autism named Matt. Matt started at the PACTT School in 1994 and is now served by PACTT residential & adult vocational programs.
Our son Matt had always been somewhat of a square peg trying to fit into a round hole in the many different multi-disability special education programs we tried throughout his youth. That is, until he landed at the PACTT Learning Center in Chicago, IL in 1994 at age 9.
PACTT’s founder is a visionary named Laurie Bushman who was always able to recognize and connect with each student – not just with his/her disability. She saw the value of establishing a residential program alongside the educational piece to reinforce the person-centered programming and bring consistency to all aspects of PACTT. Although we had a very hard time trusting anyone else to care for and love Matt as well as we could, my wife Carol and I decided to have Matt become a resident in the first PACTT group home for children with autism in 1999. Although it was the most painful decision we’ve ever made, we knew it was the right thing for Matt as well as for our family, including Matt’s older sister and younger brother.
Matt handled the transition to the PACTT home much better than we did. But as much as he was progressing in his new home, it quickly became apparent that as an adult, Matt’s residential options were going to be extremely limited. Fortunately for us, PACTT programs had been developing at a rapid pace as Matt and his peers were leaving their late teens and entering adulthood. So this group of longtime cohorts formed the leading demographic edge and really was the catalyst for PACTT’s expansion into adult housing.
PACTT’s first Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA) opened in Rogers Park, IL in March of 2007 as a home to four young men and two young women. Matt again had no problems making the transition to his new home, which was staffed at a 2:1 ratio. The CILA is state-funded, but the state’s idea of what it takes to operate an adult group home falls far short of the real cost of providing a safe and secure environment for individuals with severe autism. So PACTT owns the home, and private donations and grants make up this difference.
Crucial to the success of a truly comprehensive residential program, PACTT put in place a vibrant vocational training and job placement program that also integrates Matt into his local community. When he officially reached adult age, tuition from the State Board of Education expired and the Department of Human Services assumed responsibility for day-time program funding. At this critical point in life, during the transitional period of young adulthood, funding for day services typically drops by over 70% and falls dramatically short of the needs of individuals with autism. Progress from years of hard work, education and training are at risk of being lost. Thanks to the support of PACTT Vocational Services, however, Matt is enjoying a productive life as a valued member of the workforce and his community.
Residents at PACTT are involved in the day-to-day function of the home and have assigned duties such as cooking, cleaning and laundry. Along with their regular work schedules, residents also perform many activities off-hours: they collect the recyclables at the CILA, school, transition and adult programs and take them to the local recycling center; shop for the home’s and agency’s grocery needs; resupply & manage an in-house vending machine business; make purchases in the community; and use public transportation.
Carol and I feel blessed to have found a compassionate partner in PACTT that provides the expertise and vision to create an environment where Matt can lead a life filled with dignity and meaning. Matt has taught many people that interaction with those who are different opens new perspectives on our common humanity.