Make-believe mall gives children with disabilities important life skills

Published: Feb. 3, 2020 at 2:15 PM EST
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A state-of-the-art make-believe shopping mall is helping children with disabilities learn important life skills.

It's a busy day full of shopping for 15-year-old Grace Kouhles. First stop, the bank for cash and then on to the grocery store, the pet shop and hair salon.

"This is my favorite part. I like to go to the salon," Kouhles said.

She and her classmates are on a field trip to Lifetown in New Jersey. It's a 15,000 square-foot shopping mall that looks just like the real thing, but is actually all pretend. This center was built earlier this year for children with disabilities, to help them learn every-day tasks, like shopping in a safe, non-threatening space.

Occupational therapist and teacher Abie Levi says this pretend mall helps his students learn the skills to manage on their own. "It gives them an idea of what to do or expect in a predicament like waiting at the cash register," Levi said

Reporter Hilary Lane: Why can it be challenging for a child with a disability to be present in a mall for example?

Abie Levi: It's the sights, the sounds, the smells, the crowds, all these things can be very overstimulating.

The idea to build this center came from Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, who raised more than $18 million to make it a reality. "Everything is about creating opportunities for people with special abilities to interact with the community," Grossbaum said.

This center is run by over 1,000 volunteers. It's retired special education teacher Maureen McKenna's first day on the job. "It's just been a phenomenal day, and to see their faces light up," McKenna said.

Grace Kouhles says she cant wait to come back to Lifetown again. "I love it here," she said.

Enjoying the practice that will prepare her for the real world.

Lifetown is open to schools all around the country who would like to bring their students for a visit.