Program offers activities for special-needs kids

SUWANEE - A mother of two special-needs children, Vicki LaRoche said she realized a long time ago there was a need for a place where her children and others like them could interact and create lasting friendships.

A few years ago the Lawrenceville resident started a ministry called Night Lights in Gwinnett County for those children. The program at Sugarloaf United Methodist Church still functions today.

Now, the mother of three calls that ministry the "spark plug" that led to the creation of a new nonprofit foundation in Suwanee called The Next Stop.

"It certainly came from family experience," LaRoche said of her idea for The Next Stop, a program offering social and life skills activities for high-functioning special-needs people 16 and older out of the Suwanee Sports Academy, 3640 Burnette Road, Suwanee.

"There was a lack of social activities for my children. Making friends was difficult for them. Options for them, and many like them, have to be provided, and that's what we're working on."

LaRoche said she and her husband Stu opened The Next Stop quietly in September with a group of 14 members and four volunteer staff members.

LaRoche makes clear her program is not a day care for teens and adults, but a place where mildly mentally disabled persons can interact with others, make friends and learn.

From 1 to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, LaRoche along with her husband and volunteers, open their doors for social activities, including crafting, cooking, adaptive sports and other hands-on skill training.

"We've developed a calendar of activities," LaRoche said. "For example, one month was National Hispanic Heritage month, so we made quesadillas."

A month after opening, LaRoche said the program is progressing, with her children Tyler, 20 and Lindsey, 26 remaining the inspiration for the foundation. She said her son Austin, a recent Florida State University grad, even serves as executive director of the foundation.

LaRoche said she hopes to expand the program, eventually building a community center to house The Next Stop, which will offer more programs to a variety of special-needs children and adults. But until the needed funding is there, the LaRoche's continue to grow the program in Suwanee.

Families interested in enrolling their teen or adult in The Next Stop can contact LaRoche at 404-932-3953 or vicki@thenextstop.org. More information can be found and donations can be made by visiting the foundation's Web site at www.thenextstop.org.

"Just as important as serving the members, I think it's great for the community to be aware of the potential of these folks," LaRoche reasoned for the importance of a program like The Next Stop. "Our goal is to take care of each other."