New D.C. center to serve disabled youths, vets

September 27, 2011

For years, Tatia Gilstrap searched for teen social groups, summer camps and sports teams in the Washington area where her son, Trenton, could have fun without worrying about winning or being teased.

Trenton has Asperger syndrome and epilepsy, and Gilstrap’s painstaking search for activities and services for him often ended up nowhere.

But next month, the HSC Foundation, a long-standing disability advocacy organization in the District, will open the National Youth Transitions Center, a one-stop shop with a variety of services aimed at people with disabilities and injured veterans, ages 14 to 26.

“If I would have had this youth transition center years back, then it would have saved a lot of leg time,” said Gilstrap, who lives in Brandywine.

The seven-story building, located at 2013 H St. NW in Foggy Bottom, will house more than 40 local and national organizations to help the youths transition smoothly into adulthood. In one place, families will find a psychologist, nutritionist, career counselor, and perhaps most important, Gilstrap said, supportive peers who know what it is like to be different.

For someone such as Trenton, 17, who did not speak until he was 6, the services and social network that will be provided at the center are crucial. He remembers well how ostracized his disabilities sometimes made him feel. In the sixth grade, he once had an epileptic seizure in class.

“People were scared,” he said. “I heard one kid tell her parents I had a disease. Kids thought I was dead.”

Trenton also remembers pushing his peers further away by awkwardly staring at them or speaking in an “outside voice” at inappropriate times, behaviors typical of a person with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.

Inspired by his social experiences and fed up with the lack of resources, Trenton and his mother in 2006 started a nonprofit organization, Mind Expansion Community Services, which will partner with the foundation.

The Gilstraps’ organization, which works to find creative solutions to community concerns, also serves as an umbrella for Trenton’s group, the Hidden Inspirations Project ( H.I.P ) Kids. Through social activities, such as going to Six Flags and the Baltimore aquarium, H.I.P Kids aims to foster more understanding between youths with and without disabilities.

Trenton, a senior at Gwynn Park High School in Prince George’s County and an avid golfer, has overcome many challenges. An aspiring biomedical engineer with a high math score on the SAT, he has received many e-mails, phone calls and brochures from colleges, including MIT and the University of Chicago.

Yet as a young man with disabilities, he has specific concerns, such as which campuses provide health services for students with epilepsy and which careers are most likely to accommodate his different social nature — the types of questions that can be explored with counselors at the youth center, Gilstrap said.

The center’s other partners include Goodwill of Greater Washington, and TransCen, a job-readiness and employment agency for people with disabilities. Able Forces, which offers job services for injured and disabled veterans, is among the groups that will cater to wounded ex-service members.

Making the transition to civilian life, especially after an illness or injury, can be daunting, said Rachele Glasper, 35, who was forced to retire after suffering cardiac arrest while working as a military recruiter in the District. Figuring out how to live as you did before a disability can be frustrating, she said, adding that it “can be complicated to find a good fit, to fit physical and mental needs.”

Glasper, who was unemployed for three years, will be working as a reception clerk at the youth center. “I’m just excited because I get to get back into society,” she said.

The official ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Oct. 26. But talk of creating a center of this kind began six years ago, said Tom Chapman, president and chief executive of the HSC Foundation. Before then, the field was not focused enough on early intervention, he said. “That’s an expensive mistake in our society,” he said. “Either you want them to be contributors to society, or you want them to be dependents.”

Chapman and partner organizations decided the most effective solution would be to collaborate. Too often, he said, people working in the field work alone or compete with one another for funding.

So when a townhouse from the 1800s became available at George Washington University, Chapman decided to purchase the property and establish an epicenter of resources for the disabled. The center, LEED-certified as a “green” building, will be “the glue” for organizations that have committed themselves to serving the disabled, Chapman said.

Skip Rogers, executive director and co-founder of Able Forces, added: “It’s going to set a standard of support and service for youth with challenges.”

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