Teva Community

From left to right, Nate Stein, Jake Reisman, Lisa Stein, Maya Reisman, Shar Brandhagen, Sara Reisman and Jeri Reisman with dog Eris.

When Jake Reisman, 26, spelled the words “camp makes my heart sing,” his mother, Sara, knew her nonspeaking, autistic son would love a retreat center and residential community that she and other Jews were opening at a former Jewish overnight camp site in Prescott.

Ten years in the planning, Teva Community was founded by a group of friends in their 50s and 60s who have nostalgic memories of their beloved Camp Teva, renamed Camp Lebeau in 1978. The summer camp run by the Phoenix Jewish Community Center closed in the late 1980s and was reopened as the YMCA’s Camp Anytown.

Abandoned for 10 years, the 35-acre wooded site with a lodge and bunkhouses is on its way to becoming a supported living community for adults with autism who communicate their thoughts and desires alternatively through letterboards, keyboards, computer tablets and other devices.

And that’s not everyone Teva Community will serve. The educational and multi-purpose retreat center will be offered to like-minded nonprofits, teachers and families that support people with autism.

Sara Reisman, president of the board, said that Teva (Hebrew for nature) Community will fill a need for a living and learning environment for people who have grown up and “aged out” of government-funded services.

According to Autism Speaks, it is estimated that 40% percent of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are considered nonverbal, meaning that they may never learn to speak more than a few words. The use of spelling methods (letterboards, keyboards, computer tablets, etc.) has given autistic people an alternative form of communication.

“When we started using some of these spelling methods, we learned that he’d been listening all this time,” said Amy Greiner, mother of Joshua, a 20-year-old with autism and executive director of Teva Community. “He really understood everything and his schools were not supportive. So, I started homeschooling him four years ago. He understands multiplication and division and now writes poetry.”

Federal law guarantees an education for children with developmental disabilities, like autism, until the age of 21. At that point, they lose the specialized help and structure they’ve had for most of their lives.

That gives parents like Reisman cause for deep concern. “From a very young age, when we realized that autism is here forever and it’s not something that’s going to be cured or needs to be cured, we’d been thinking, what are we going to do?”

One answer is Teva Community, where nonspeaking adults who need a lot of support can live with some independence.

“As they get older, they don’t want to live at home,” said Nate Stein, vice president of the board and Jake Reisman’s uncle. “They want to live as independently as they can, to make their own friends and have their own relationships.”

The retreat center, near Iron Springs and Granite Basin Roads, will open the summer of 2023. The facilities still need construction and refurbishing. Structures include 12 bunkhouses (120 beds), two bathhouses and a large lodge with a commercial kitchen. “It needs significant repair,” said Stein, who spent his career running Jewish community centers in Phoenix, Tucson, Tempe and other places and was also a director of Camp Lebeau.

Given the makeup of the board and the site’s history, the founders are drawing a good share of donations — $163,000 in just a few months — from the Arizona Jewish community. Other donors who have contributed to the recent Facebook fundraising campaign are from the autism community. The founders themselves have donated thousands of dollars toward the $35,000 needed to purchase the YMCA camp, which sits on U.S. Forest Service land.

“We were concerned about how potential donors would feel that it’s not being turned into another Jewish camp,” Reisman said. “But we have had so much support from the Jewish community. Everyone is so excited because autism pretty much touches almost everybody. If you don’t have a child, you have a friend or relative with a child. Plus, we’ll have reunion retreats there and people can come back to camp.”

Such programs for adults with autism can be $6,000 a month if paid privately. But Teva Community organizers are hoping for government assistance in the form of revenue from training programs, social security and Medicaid vouchers. “Our goal is not to make it a burden on families; but to have their government benefits cover their residential needs,” Stein said.

The Teva Community website makes a strong case for the residential program: “Most importantly, based on input from nonspeaking autistics themselves, we believe we can create an environment that they need, want and deserve, one that’s positive, empowering, centered on human rights and dignity, with pathways to meaningful careers, increased confidence, autonomy, growth, self-expression and joy.” JN

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Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.