State College

Building provides gift of hope, opportunity for local autism community

CDT photo

Allow me to share the news of a gift worthy of being mentioned on Christmas.

In 2014, I wrote about Bella Bregar’s dream. The retired autistic support teacher from Linden Hall wanted to start a support and education center for adults with autism and intellectual disabilities.

She had her eye on Benjamin Plum Farm in Oak Hall but couldn’t raise the money. Her resolve didn’t waver. Changing her nonprofit’s name to Adults Creating Residential Employment Solutions Project, or the Acres Project for short, she carried on with finding another property.

Now, her long search is over.

Two weeks ago, she sealed a deal for the old The Second Mile house on Bernel Road in Patton Township. Santa Claus, in this case, is Adam Fernsler, a local architect and Acres Project board member who joined the cause two years ago. He bought the building on 2.5 acres, and is leasing the parcel to the nonprofit as well as renovating the interior.

These days, Bregar is as thrilled as a child tearing through wrapping.

“We didn’t give up,” she said. “We just kept pressing forward.”

She’s hopes to move in on March 1. Then, as she has imagined for so long, educational programs can begin to create a community for fostering independence, self-advocacy and entrepreneurship for individuals with special needs.

“Just to give them a place where they feel secure, a safe haven for them,” Bregar said.

She has an adult advisory group of five people with autism leading the way, and they’ve come up with promising ideas. Social and recreational programs will offer movies, crafts, communal meals and other activities. There will be vocational training, and possibly college orientation workshops. A parent mentoring group has formed to counsel parents with young children on the autism spectrum.

Bregar is particularly excited about launching an aquaponics program. The initial plan is to employ five to seven adults to farm, package and sell fish and produce at local markets, giving them experience running a business.

Now with some earth beneath her feet, Bregar is aiming for the moon. The basement could have a virtual reality room where adults considering jobs could take VR tours of workplaces and practice necessary skills. The property is large enough for two duplexes to help residents transition to independent living. Out of the center, a detailing business could be run.

“The possibilities are just endless,” Bregar said.

Fernsler’s largess opened the door, but there have been other benefactors. Penn State student Mary Krupa, one of Bregar’s former students, has gained fame as the “squirrel whisperer” who charms her furry friends into wearing tiny hats. She’s selling a calendar of Sneezy, her main model, to raise funds.

One woman, despite no connection to autism, still was moved to give a large financial contribution. Another woman, whose granddaughter has autism, moved into a condo and donated the contents of her house — future furniture for the center. Penn State special education students and rehabilitation education students are willing to help through internships.

“My heart is full with so many blessings and people that we have connected with,” Bregar said.

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at chrisrosenblum@comcast.net.

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