The Belong Program, an independent living program for neurodiverse young adults in the Colorado State University Department of Occupational Therapy, recently received funding from the Bohemian Foundation to help support the neurodiverse community in Fort Collins.
Created in 2021, the Belong Program supports neurodiverse young adults, aged 18-26, who seek to gain confidence and skills living independently with a roommate. Neurodiversity refers to the inherent diversity in the human brain and cognition, including sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. The Bohemian Foundation supports efforts to build strong communities and supports several programs within CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.
Bridging the gap
The Belong Program, housed in the Center for Community Partnerships in the Department of Occupational Therapy, was created when CCP staff identified a gap in services for neurodiverse young adults wanting to live independently, but who still may need some level of support to be successful with moving out on their own. Belong was designed to meet those needs in our community.
The program aimed to find a balance between complete independent living and fully supported living for neurodiverse individuals. This need for balance facilitated a partnership between the Center for Community Partnerships, and a local landlord who owns a housing complex in the community. In this partnership, the CCP provides individual support for participants while the participants also receive real-world experience working with the property management company that manages the housing complex.
Building independent living skills
Support comes in a variety of ways for participants in the Belong program. All eight residents of the Belong housing complex participate in monthly community meetings and monthly social gatherings in an effort to build a sense of community within the program, practice independent living skills, and to promote social connections. In addition to monthly group activities, each resident meets individually with a Belong staff member to work on their independent living goals whether that be meal planning, financial management, executive functioning skills such as time management and scheduling, or any other life skills the resident is wanting to work on to feel more confident with living on their own.
The Belong staff also facilitates monthly roommate meetings where a staffer meets with each roommate pair to promote connection, work on conflict resolution, or manage a cleaning schedule together. Like all forms of support provided by the Belong Program, the roommate meetings are individualized to meet the needs of each roommate pair.
“We have opportunities to have fun with the participants and we want them to feel comfortable discussing those rough patches where change and growth may feel difficult,” explained Sam Shoener, Belong Program coordinator and former program intern.
Movin’ on up
With the funding provided by the Bohemian Foundation grant, the Belong Program has already begun to reap the rewards of having access to additional financial resources. For instance, in previous years the monthly social gatherings were funded by the residents, which would often limit the number of activities available due to financial constraints. Now, with the help of the grant, the program has been able to fund all the social gathering events which has expanded the breadth of activities available for the residents to participate in.
“Social gatherings are all about increasing access to and participation in the community, and being able to take this financial burden off of participants has been huge in terms of expanding what opportunities we’ve been able to offer,” said Rebecca Reinhardt, Belong Program director.
In addition to boosted social gatherings, the grant funds have also helped to increase the resources available to participants within the housing complex. The community room, a great space for residents to relax, socialize with friends, or study, previously had 100% of the items donated to the program to help Belong get up and running. With the additional funds, Belong has been able to significantly increase the types of resources available by providing new items such as cookbooks and cooking supplies, exercise equipment, and so much more. With new resources available to residents in the community room, the likelihood of socialization and community building is expected to increase and hopefully contribute to an overall successful experience for each individual.
“Watching an individual become comfortable in their new environment, form meaningful relationships with their roommate, or become an engaged member of the Fort Collins community is just the tip of the iceberg,” added Shoener.
The Belong Program, although a newer program on CSU’s campus, has already proven its strong commitment and support for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. The support doesn’t stop where the campus boundary lines end though, as Belong is committed to serving people in the Northern Colorado community and raising awareness to diverse and neurodiverse equity issues in society today.
“Disability and neurodiversity are often underdiscussed in larger diversity and inclusion conversations,” stated Reinhardt. “With this program, we hope to not only offer increased opportunities for neurodiverse young adults to reach and exceed their goals, but to continue facilitating important conversations and action steps for increasing equity and opportunities for this community.”
Currently, the Belong Program staff continues to spread the word, increase awareness, and reach as many potential participants as possible. There are many individuals in the community who would greatly benefit from this program, and the Belong staff wants them to know about the program as a potential resource so that they can be empowered to make decisions that will best support them in reaching their goals. As it stands, participants are in the program for a minimum of one year due to the lease agreement, but participants may stay for an additional year if they feel there are still factions of independent life they want to improve on.
The Belong Program looks forward to hopefully obtaining longer-term grant funding so it may continue to increase the availability of services to the neurodiverse community without placing additional financial burden on program participants. With additional grant funding, more improvements can be made to the housing complex and ultimately the program could expand, providing housing and support for more individuals.
“As a community, learning to accept new and unique ways of thinking or different learning styles can foster a more open environment for individuals who are neurodivergent,” Shoener said. “Adopting an inclusive mindset shines a light on new knowledge and talents that have historically been overlooked.”
Applications for an August 2023 move-in will open March 2023 with an application information session in February 2023. For anyone seeking more information regarding the Belong Program, you are invited to contact Rebecca Reinhardt directly.
About the Bohemian Foundation
The Bohemian Foundation, founded in 2001 by philanthropist Pat Stryker, is a private family foundation that supports local, national, and global efforts to build strong communities. The foundation focuses primarily on four program areas: community, music, global, and civic. In each of these areas the foundation works to impact communities through grantmaking, foundation-directed programs, and events. In August 2022, Bohemian Foundation awarded grants to local organizations working to strengthen the vibrant Fort Collins community, including the Belong Program.
The Department of Occupational Therapy is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.