“Careful,” advised Esther Kaltmann, as she guided visitors into a large room at the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center. “You don’t want to get hit.”
A young student on a tricycle zoomed by, stopping at a traffic light just on the other side of the “road” that circles around LifeTown, a unique learning center in New Albany. Each day of the school year, nearly 50 students with developmental and/or medical disabilities spend time at this 5,000-square-foot facility built to resemble a tiny but fully functioning town. It is populated with a food store, movie theater, pet store, art studio, salon, library and medical offices.
“You have to obey the traffic signals,” advised the student’s teacher, walking alongside the tricycle rider. They patiently waited for the light to change from red to green. “Watch Out” is just one of nearly 40 lesson plans that Bassie Shemtov, a Michigan educator, wrote when she created the first LifeTown eight years ago in West Bloomfield, Mich. The Central Ohio version opened in 2008 inside the former Kent Elementary School in Columbus, then relocated to its current New Albany home two years ago. Its operations are funded through donations from companies and individuals.
“Columbus City Schools were with us from the beginning,” said Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann. “They held our hand through this.”
Kaltmann and his wife Esther are the driving forces behind LifeTown. Mrs. Kaltmann serves as LifeTown’s director and Rabbi Kaltmann is an omnipresent force, buzzing through and greeting the 15 to 20 volunteers needed to run LifeTown each weekday.
“Students visit once a month over a period of years,” Mrs. Kaltmann said. “There’s so much opportunity to reinforce life skills. They need a variety of skills, like how to manage their time.”
She watched as students, visiting that day from Northland High School, Buckeye Elementary and South Mifflin STEM Academy, bustled through the indoor village. Many carried clipboards with their schedules attached.
“Their goal today is to track their time so they themselves can know how precious their time is,” Mrs. Kaltmann explained.
If the Kaltmanns are the force behind LifeTown, then someone like Rennell Mahone II just might be able to lay claim to the title of mayor in LifeTown. The gregarious 18-year-old Northland student strolls through the town like he owns it.
At the start of each LifeTown visit, each student is issued $12 from the town bank. On this day, Mahone already has treated himself to a $2 hand massage at the salon, he’s popped in to say hello at the deli, made a visit to the dentist’s office and dazzled the volunteers there with his knowledge of flossing — “oh, my mother makes sure I floss,” he said — and plans to wrap up his day with a $4 trip to the movie theater.
“Every day at school we do mathematics with money,” said Mahone, who has developmental delays in his learning, “but here I get to have fun. I’m free.”
But he is also learning valuable life skills, noted one of the teachers there that day.
“It makes the curriculum more meaningful,” said Laura Shearer, a teacher at South Mifflin. “It just brings everything we tell them to life. There are needs and wants, and they really experience that.”
Even a crisis when one little girl loses her wallet is a teaching moment.
“We told her there are lots of things you can do for free,” Shearer said, “and she’s still had a great time.”
The volunteers come from a variety of organizations — from businesses like The Limited or Diamond Hill Investments, from schools like The Ohio State University and Columbus State Community College, or are people like Mary Loochtan, in search of meaningful connections to their community.
“I just still like being able to connect to kids, to the little things I see,” said Loochtan, a retired educator. “I see kids become more comfortable with coming in, making appointments. You can see their confidence increase.”
“I wish more schools did this,” Shearer agreed, adding with a smile, “They should have a ParentTown, too.”