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P&J's Life Skills fills a void in Harford for children, adults with developmental disabilities

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Many young adults fresh out of high school don't know what they want to do in life. Many go to college, others join the military and some immediately head to the working world.

Phil Givens and Jon Williams decided to start their own business, P&J's Life Skills, to provide respite care to people with special needs.

At first, Williams' parents were skeptical, asking if it was really something he wanted to do.

"At first they didn't see it," Williams said. "At first we didn't really see it. It was like, OK, if we waste a year, we'll just go back to college in a year."

Givens' parents were more receptive, as others in his family had started their own businesses, including Givens' father.

"They had my back 100 percent," Givens said. By his account, his parents said, "You need help staring the business; you need help going to meetings, let us know and we'll help you."

The year was not wasted, as the pair found that they filled a void in Harford County.

"Not really anyone else in Harford County does what we do or can do what we do," Givens said.

Helping hand, teaching

Givens and Williams, who both turn 20 this year, typically help 30 to 50 disabled adults and children in a two-week period, with 80 to 90 percent of their clients coming from Harford County. They or one of their eight part-time employees help get kids off school buses when they arrive home, or provide in-home care to give parents free time, even if parents just want to complete chores around the house.

They even help parents locate private and public funding to help pay for care. If they have a family's contact information, "we've pretty much been calling you and saying 'hey, this is available right now. Let's walk you through the process, let's get you invoiced and let's get you what you need,' " Williams said.

"That way, there's more hours for our employees in the following year and more for us to do," Williams added. "A lot of the parents haven't even heard of the funding sources before."

They also teach children and adults basic life skills, like how to order and behave at restaurants how to purchase food at grocery stores, and will help with homework, with activities tailored to the age of the person, "basically bringing them out in to the community," Williams said.

They will also hold regular outings for children and adults tailored to seasons, including going to amusement parks, going fishing, going swimming and snow tubing.

The pair charges hourly for respite and one-on one-care and by the program for social outings, as well as for their camp, which had its first session earlier this summer.

"We work are hardest to get the families funds from different agencies to cover the cost of whatever it is that they will be participating in," Givens said.

Their employees are all trained to use AEDs and perform CPR, and typically come from backgrounds where they already have experience with developmentally disabled children, such as Best Buddies or having the educational background, and the pair is always looking to hire more.

"We try to focus our employees based on someone who is experienced, [such as someone] who has a brother or sister with disabilities," Williams said. "A lot of times, it's our reputation when we're hiring somebody. You don't want to hire somebody that's going to ruin your reputation and is not going to show up to get a kid off the bus."

Working with church

Givens and Williams also help with programs at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air. The church has programs for special needs people on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and needed help with staffing. After learning about the pair's work at a special needs summit in 2012, the church hired them.

Williams runs an exercise day on Tuesday mornings, and there is also a game day on Thursday mornings at the church. A more academic program is held Monday afternoon for special needs adults.

"They have a maturity and wisdom way beyond their years," said Terri Cooney, youth director and founder of the special needs ministry at the church. "They have great skill. I'm the mom of some special needs kids. My son is 26 and has autism. They are exemplary and have a God given gift to just understand and relate with [those with special needs]."

Cooney met the pair in March 2012, and knows Givens better as he's a church member; however, both do considerable work for the church.

"I see them both every week in all kinds of circumstances. They're very fine young men," Cooney said. "It's a rare pair. I don't think in all my years of working with the young I've met two quite like these guys."

"They really cover all their bases, as far as the legality of forms, everything that they do is very highly professional which is pretty astounding considering their age," Cooney said.

Summer camp

In June, P&J's Life Skills held its first summer camp at the Arena Club in Churchville, offering sports, swimming, bowling and therapeutic horseback riding, among other activities for one week during the day.

"Summer camp is huge. Being able to provide a summer camp at the age of 19, not many people trust anybody with their kids with disabilities, they don't often leave them alone ever," Williams said. "It's like, wow, you're going to trust me with your kid? That's a huge responsibility, but it's also a huge sense of accomplishment."

While the two took the camp seriously, they also had fun, dressing up in costumes and adopting humorous character personas to entertain those at the camp, which was open to developmentally disabled children and adults ages 6-21.

"We have a lot of fun working with the children," Givens said. "It's all we like to do."

Anne Cerruto's son Luke, who has both Down syndrome and autism, participated in the summer camp and enjoyed it a lot, she said.

"He seemed to be in a really good mood," Cerruto said. "He seemed to have a good day and the report we got from them is that he had a great day."

"When you have a child with special needs, it's very hard to find a camp that will take them," said Barbara Brown, whose 13-year-old son Elliot also has Down syndrome and attended the camp. "He's very active, my Elliot, so a sports camp is good for him."

"P&J's Life Skills generally has made those things an option for those kids to do in a group," Brown added. "There aren't any other groups like that that I know of."

The summer camp will also have three more sessions: Aug. 5-9, Aug. 12-16 and Aug. 19-23, with volunteers still being sought to help. If those sessions are successful, the two hope to hold more camps around the state and possibly hold an overnight camp "so parents can have a whole week for themselves," Givens said.

Lack of interaction

Givens and Williams already had experience being with children and adults with developmental disabilities even going back to elementary school. Williams volunteered in speech classes, where there were several students with Down syndrome, and Givens had a close friend who used a wheelchair in kindergarten. Givens also has a brother with severe epilepsy.

The real impetus for the business started when the pair, best friends since middle school, began attending Patterson Mill High School.

At Patterson Mill, they noticed that there wasn't a lot of interaction the students with special needs had with the rest of the school.

"In a classroom, there's just children with disabilities and teachers. That's it," Givens said. "The learned behavior's going to be other children with disabilities. We saw this and thought the interaction with other kids was necessary."

So, they went to the principal and asked what they could do. He suggested they could use their home room period at the beginning of the day to spend time with the special needs students.

Givens and Williams took full advantage, coming to school well before classes would start and playing games like Uno and Trouble with students through the announcements.

After this success, they tried to start a Best Buddies program at the school. Best Buddies is a national organization that encourages students to spend time with their special needs peers. The school was still new, however, and couldn't financially support the program. That didn't stop the pair, though.

"We basically didn't take 'no' as an answer," Williams said. "If they're not going to let us do [Best Buddies], let's just make something; let's just do it."

Williams and Givens started their own program, the Interactive Inclusion Program (IIP) to interact with special needs students at the school.

"Jon was a wrestler, I was a golfer," Givens said. "We were pretty popular in school. If we said 'let's hang out these kids for an hour during lunch,' 10-20 kids would come out and play games with us."

Support from classmates

Within one month, the program grew from Givens, Williams and a few friends to about 60 students, all spending time with developmentally disabled students.

They took advantage of expanded, 50 minute lunch periods to meet three days a week to plan and coordinate activities to help disabled students be included in the rest of the student body.

The program's members started by sitting with the disabled students during lunch on Mondays teaching social skills. On Wednesdays, they had "chef's days" where the disabled students would be taught to cook easy meals by guest chefs including principals, teachers and even staff from local pizza shops. Friday would be a reward day where they would have activities like Nintendo Wii games, picnics and even talent shows.

Soon, the perception of developmentally disabled students began to change. The pair would speak to popular students, like the captains of sports teams, and urge them to participate and police any mockery of the disabled students.

"Be the role model you're supposed to be. Be an advocate, speak up for them," the group told the captains. "They may not be able to express themselves, so express it for them. Treat others the way you want to be treated."

This had a profound effect. The word "retard" fell into disuse, and students from outside the club would come to the group's events, even cheering for the special needs students in sports activities.

"You'd be surprised how many kids would come out and make posters and cheer the kids on," Williams said. "By the time we left that high school, if you said the R word in class, it wouldn't take a second before two or three people were like "don't say that, use something else.' "

"Kids who were against [the program]; we filtered them out," Williams said. They told them that even if they were against it, "don't look down on us, don't bash us, and don't disrespect the kids. Don't be a bully."

Acceptance, awareness

Givens and Williams say they hope acceptance and awareness of people with developmental disabilities increases.

For people with disabilities, "You go out in public with kids and they look at you, they stare at you and they give you mean looks and they say mean things to you and it's like hey, he's just like you or me," Williams said. "What if you were to be born like this, what would you do? Or, if this was your son or daughter, how would you feel? How would you want other people to treat you?"

"We want that to be completely demolished, for [special needs] to be accepted, because what's normal?" Givens asked. "What are we comparing ourselves to? Who holds the standard?"

"We want to be able to promote so much acceptance and awareness that they can be anywhere in public and nobody would say a thing to them," Williams said.

After Williams and Givens graduated, they weren't sure what they wanted to do next. They knew they wanted to continue their work with developmentally disabled people, though, still seeing the need to help, and the idea for a business came soon after.

"When we left high school, people around the county were like 'don't stop doing what you're doing, you guys have a huge thing sitting for you, you're doing the right thing, there's a lot of people out there that need this' and we basically saw it as an opportunity and we jumped on it," Williams said.

The two received help from Givens' mother, who works at a title company, and avoided paying larger fees for starting the business with her help. They were already doing sporadic work with respite care, offering home care to parents of disabled children they knew from school connections.

These parents, experienced with care for the disabled helped them with getting the necessary insurance and training to do respite care full-time. Initially working out of Givens' house, the two moved to an office on South Main Street in Bel Air in January 2012, forming their LLC at the same time.

Praise from parents

Cerruto heard about the pair from their work at Patterson Mill from a former co-worker whose child attended the school.

Cerruto started using their services this year, having them help to get her son off of the bus after school and engage him in different activities, from taking him swimming or going to the store to run errands.

"I am just blown away by the fact that two young men in high school decided to become involved with kids with disabilities. Kids that age feel like they don't want to be bothered," Cerruto said. "They know that there is a need out there and learned this early on for the families that did respite care."

Cerruto said that the two have had a "tremendous impact" on her son, as his behaviors can prove challenging.

"They don't see him as having a disability; they see him a person first, a person who should have opportunities to do things," Cerruto said. "A lot of times they can get my son to do stuff that I struggle with. They get him to do stuff that I tell him twenty times to do. They tell him once and he does it."

Donna Dulski met Williams at a community swimming pool three to four years ago, where she would take her son Ryan, who has moderate to severe autism and an Arnold-Chiari malformation of the brain.

She found herself apologizing whenever Ryan would act up. Williams, one of the pool's lifeguards at the time, introduced himself and told her about his work with Givens and told her they would be willing to help in any way. She spoke to another parent who had worked with Williams, and she decided to have him help her son.

"He started to take him mainly once a week at the Arena Club to their pool up there," Dulski said of Williams. "Before him, I had to kind of do everything myself. I didn't know help was out there."

Ryan enjoys spending time with Williams, Dulski said, even going with him to get scheduled blood work every few months.

"He doesn't do well with me, so Jon does better with him," Dulski said regarding the blood work. "They're going to Hershey Park at the end of the month, something by myself I could never take Ryan to."

"Ryan enjoys it, hanging out with another male," Dulski said. "I'm divorced, and he doesn't see his father much."

"They're so mature for their ages and such an inspiration, a godsend and a blessing. I just love them both. I don't know what I'd do without them," Dulski said. "I've never met two young men like them and probably never will."

Future vision

Williams and Givens' vision for the future is to provide everything the family of a disabled person would need.

"We want provide P&J's Life Skills as a one stop shop, whether you're looking for an adult day program or you're looking for an after school day care program that is willing to take your siblings and your child with disabilities," Williams said. "That's what we envision, having the different therapies that you're looking for."

Williams treasures what he and Givens have learned running the business.

"You learn so much from the kids that you never think you would learn from them," Williams said. "You learn life skills of your own, maybe not even through anything that they actually physically tell you but you learn so much about your own life; how much you should be grateful. It's just like a wonderful thing to be a part of."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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