Hastings After-school Program Pioneering Care for Teens with Special Needs

Hastings After-school Program Pioneering Care for Teens with Special Needs
September 8, 2023

Our Place After School Care in Hastings is unique among its peers. While many Nebraska communities have found solutions to the burgeoning need for quality child care through grant funds or contracts with licensed locals, Our Place serves a different and often overlooked demographic — teens with special needs.

Founded in 2018 by Adeline Johnson for her 13-year-old daughter, Zoe, who is developmentally disabled, the center opened in the basement of Faith Lutheran Church with two volunteers and three teens. The teens made crafts, read, played games and participated in other educational activities during after-school hours. As they brought on new teachers and teens, it became clear to Johnson, who acts as executive director, that they were outgrowing their space.

While visiting the Adams County Extension Office, Johnson connected with Teliza Rodriguez, a coach with Rural Prosperity Nebraska’s eCommunities program, which focuses on helping communities cultivate resources that encourage entrepreneurship within their towns. Johnson and Rodriguez began talking expansion.

“Teliza had just gotten done being the executive director of a nonprofit,” Johnson said. “So she goes, ‘All right, this is how this works. This is how you work with a board. This is how you look for funding. This is what your marketing needs to look like.’ You need someone who can do that. You need someone who can lead you through and say, ‘Here’s your next step. Here’s your next thing. Go talk to this person.’ The hours she saved and the connections she had were amazing.”

In addition to helping secure a brick-and-mortar location in November 2022, Rodriguez walked Johnson through marketing and setting up the Freedom Factory consignment store to help secure additional revenue.

Zoe Johnson paints a wooden cross with the help of an Our Place teacher. Zoe Johnson paints a wooden cross with the help of an Our Place teacher. Photo by Russell Shaffer

“Their peers have jobs, and they get money, and they decide how to use that money,” Johnson said about the teens at the center. “I started thinking, ‘My kid doesn’t have a job, so how do we work that out?’ We decided to start the Freedom Factory, so now they can sell the crafts they make. We take just enough to cover the materials and things, and they take the rest. It has worked out fabulously.”

In addition to crafts created by the teens, the store sells items by local artists, taking 30% of the price and returning 70% to the producers. Recently, Johnson’s husband traveled to Puerto Rico and met a coffee maker whose son has fragile X syndrome and helps with the packaging. Johnson saw him as a like-minded person “on the same mission,” so now Freedom Factory sells Puerto Rican coffee.

As a coach, Rodriguez not only helps individuals navigate the business startup process, but works with Nebraska communities to bolster their entrepreneurial environment and cultivate resources that encourage entrepreneurship within their towns.

“There were two things Adeline brought me in to help with,” Rodriguez said. “First, thinking through a retail space. Second, thinking of alternate ways to get funding.”

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which means the center is classified as a public charity, Our Place survives on the donations and volunteered time of locals. Even the admission fees work on a sliding scale.

Along with a similar center in Lincoln and two in Omaha, all of which began after Our Place opened, Johnson has become a pioneer of sorts in bringing attention to the funding needs of Nebraskans with special needs. Currently, discussions are being held on the legislative levels about financial aid for these centers and the children they care for.

Johnson has no plans to slow the ball she got rolling, having witnessed the benefits the center provides her daughter and other Hastings residents with special-needs children.

“The upside is seeing all of these families that come here and say, ‘This is what our family has been waiting for. My kid loves being here. Thank you for doing this,’” Johnson said. “It’s fun to see them come in and be with their peers. This gives them the opportunity to be with their friends.”

Learn more about Our Place After School Care and the Freedom Factory.