Once a month, a group of special needs young adults from Whitehouse comes to downtown Tyler to walk around the square and learn about pedestrian safety and how to act in public.
"Look right, look left. Is there a car coming?" teacher Becka Gee prompts, teaching them the importance of looking, listening and following directions before crossing a street.
The community walk typically lasts about an hour and a half.
Ms. Gee talks about one-way streets, paying attention to cross walks, what a stop sign means and points to addresses on buildings, promoting number recognition.
They stop at a parking meter to learn more about numbers and coin identification and counting money.
What kind of building is that?" Gee asks and they respond: a church, or perhaps a courthouse.
Those who can read the starting times for worship services on a church sign. Often, someone will come out of the federal courthouse and tell them what goes on inside and they have even toured it.
Occasionally, someone from a bank invites them upstairs, giving them experience with an elevator, and they look out upon downtown. They practice going up and down steps.
The community walk is one of several ways that the community serves as an extension of the classroom in the Life Blessings adult day habilitation program of Whitehouse First Baptist Church, said Lainie Browning, director and mother of a son with Down syndrome who also has autism and is non-verbal.
Upon seeing that many special needs young adults had no further educational opportunities in Whitehouse after high school, Browning started the Life Blessings program last year as an expansion of the Whitehouse First Baptist Church ministry to special needs people to provide community based instruction.
"We are trying to teach them in the community to know how to act appropriately and how to socialize appropriately," Browning said. They are different but intelligent and can learn, she added.
One participant spins everywhere he walks and another puts his hand in his mouth all the time – things that some special needs people do. "We try to teach them that is not the best behavior in public," Browning said.
Life Blessings operates from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Only two of the 12 participants, who range in age from 17 to 32, are members of the church. The program is for anyone looking for something for his or her special needs young adult child to do, Browning said.
Learning life skills doesn't stop within the four walls of the classroom; what they are taught carries over into the community and into the home, Gee said.
"This stimulates their brain and keeps them busy and active and they are enjoying life and being with their friends and being out in the community. It's great for social skills and gets them out of the house," she said, observing that otherwise the young adults might be bored and following their mother around or just sitting at home watching television.
Life Blessings teaches life skills and is all about functioning in the community to the highest potential that the special needs adults have, Gee said. The goal is for them to be as independent as possible and a contributing member of society, she added.
Browning said her son, Trent, cannot read but he is learning number recognition. "My son just started this summer and I have seen a huge difference in his behavior," she said.
Special needs adults in the program can feel they have a purpose. "Everybody needs to have that, even special needs kids," Browning said.
On Mondays, the clients stay at the church straightening pew pockets and books, emptying trash.
Other days they go to the Goodwill store in Whitehouse, where they straighten clothes and organize shelves. Other days they do chores at a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. They also put food into backpacks for needy children at Higgins Elementary School to carry home to eat on the weekend.
The young adults shop at the grocery store and bring food to the church where they prepare their own lunch. It may be spaghetti, salad, chicken strips, French fries, sloppy Joes with chips, sandwiches or other dishes.
Just setting the table becomes a life skills lesson. If there are two empty places, teachers can ask how many plates are needed and help them learn that 10 minus two is eight and they need two more plates.
Shopping at the grocery store teaches them to look for items, know which section items - such as ingredients for a salad - can be found and understand they need to be patient while standing in line to check out.
Occasionally the young adults go out to eat, rotating through three different kinds of restaurants – buffet, fast food and seated and served – to learn how to act in each setting. They order their food and pay on their own with money furnished by the church, all part of the learning process.
They learn how to tell time on both standard and digital clocks.
In another project, the young adults planted a garden of tomatoes, melons, okra, bell pepper, strawberries, carrots and squash. They plan to plant broccoli in November. They eat vegetables from the garden for their lunch.
"Our goal is to make them be as independent as possible and able to function in the community," Gee said.
Karla Ellis is both a teacher in the Life Blessings program and mother of an adult special needs daughter participating.
"It means the world to me to have her in this program because she has a place to be with other adults like her," Ellis said. "It gives her something to do. She is learning to work so if the time ever comes for her to get a job, she will have knowledge of what is expected of her."
Her daughter, Teri, 31, said, "I like to try to fit into the world. I enjoy my friends and everybody. I like to cook lunch. We put food in sacks to help people. I like this place so much. It has made me happier."
Another participant, Avery Covington, 17, said, "I learn from the teachers and they help me a lot. I like my friends and my teachers. I make it my goal to do good stuff."