The program helps special needs students gain confidence and independence through a unique hands-on atmosphere.

There’s joy in Areyah Kaltmann’s voice as he greets students arriving at LifeTown Columbus.

“Welcome! Welcome!” says the executive director of Chabad Columbus. He smiles and waves at the special needs students, sharing gentle fist bumps with some, as they come inside out of the cold. “Come in!”

On this particular morning, the students shed their coats, pick up materials and head into the heart of LifeTown, a 5,000-square-foot village where they can practice social and life skills. They have prepped for the two-hour session at their home schools and are eager to bring those lessons to life. “We want our kids to learn by doing and to make mistakes in a safe environment,” says Kaltmann. “That’s how you learn.”

Inside, shops and offices ring a village green, each stop offering a different set of lessons. There’s a bank, movie theater, deli, library, salon, medical center, pet center, marketplace, and an arts and crafts shop.

Financial literacy is emphasized as an important skill, so the bank is the first stop. Each student receives a check for $12. They wait in line to see the banker, who helps them count out the money. If they don’t spend everything during the session, they bring back the remainder and learn how to fill out a deposit slip.

With funds in hand, students have to budget what they spend around town. “They can spend it all on popcorn,” Kaltmann says in the lobby of the movie theater. “But if they do, they won’t have any money left to see the movie.”

On this morning, about 60 students explore the town in a swirl of activity. “It’s a good crowd,” says Stephan Cooke, LifeTown’s program manager.

“My favorite thing is to have a teacher tell me, ‘He was clinging to me when we came in, and now I can’t find him,’ ” Cooke says with a smile. It’s a sure sign that a student is comfortable enough to test their independence.

“What they offer opens the eyes, the minds, the senses of our students with multiple disabilities more than anything else they’ve ever been exposed to,” says Lisa Munnerlyn, supervisor of the multiple disabilities department for Columbus City Schools. “It’s a great extension of the district curriculum.”

The experience is valuable for younger students and can become even more meaningful for older students, who work with professional mentors to build job skills, she says.

Munnerlyn says the initial reaction of students attending LifeTown is often dramatic. “It’s not just a lightbulb that goes on; it’s like the pyrotechnics display Downtown,” she says.

That’s what Christina Tatum of north Columbus saw in her son, Michael, when he started making trips to LifeTown in middle school. “Once he started going there, he blossomed,” she says of her son, who has autism and is now a senior at Beechcroft High School. Where he used to be reserved and didn’t talk much, he began to gain confidence and even crack jokes after working with a mentor there. “They really helped bring out what I didn’t know was in there,” she says. “I can’t stress enough how it has changed my son’s life.”

LifeTown began in 2008 as a pilot program with Columbus schools. It moved to the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany in 2011 and now serves students in grades K-12 from all over Ohio. Their schools apply for placement and fund the cost of attendance, though scholarships are available. Participants typically attend four to six times a year.

“Thirty years ago, our kids would [have been] institutionalized,” Kaltmann says of the students. “This program and others make a difference.”

LifeTown has a broad network of corporate and philanthropic partners, including Chabad Columbus, that provide funding, donations and volunteers. It is one of only three such programs in the nation; the others are in Michigan and New Jersey.

The staff is always looking for new ways to improve the experience. A recent addition is a drug prevention education program, “Stop To Live.” Studies show that the risk of substance abuse for people with special needs is two to four times higher than the general public, says Shaunacy Webster, chief operating officer of Chabad Columbus. “The program is designed for kids of all different ages and abilities,” she says. “We want to empower them to make good choices.”

Ohio State University students have been evaluating the program to determine how well participants internalize the information. LifeTown officials are talking to state agencies, as well as universities in Ohio and beyond, in hopes of offering it on a national level.

One of LifeTown’s keys to success is its volunteers. It takes about 20 to run the daily sessions, and between 1,200 and 1,300 participate in a given year, Kaltmann says.

Some, like Geno Shiffrin, are retired teachers or businesspeople; others assist through corporate service projects. “I’m here almost every day,” Shiffrin says from the bank teller’s window. “This is my 11th year.”

“You can see the progress in the children. You can see the improvement and the skills they develop over the course of time,” says Sally Weimer, another longtime volunteer who was working in the arts and crafts shop. She says she enjoys helping the students develop those skills. “It’s what the world needs.”