SUWANEE -- As a parent of a daughter with special needs, and someone who taught autism in Gwinnett schools for 17 years, Mary O'Connell has a passion for helping people with special needs.
"I really fell in love with the kids and parents and realized a lot of what we were going through, they were going through, too," said O'Connell, whose daughter, Ellie, is 21. "There are a lot of struggles when you have a child with special needs or autism. But the joy that they bring to everybody's life is just unbelievable. It's very difficult to explain that. There's lots of hardships for a family, but that child is so precious that families will do anything, particularly to keep their child at home, so they don't have to go into an institution.
Now O'Connell wants to help those adults and their families with an option previously not available in Suwanee, Gwinnett County, or into the Cumming and North Fulton areas.
O'Connell and her husband, Michael, moved to Suwanee from Grayson last year and purchased a home on Suwanee Dam Road that's on 4.3 acres. Their plan is to open a personal care center for adults who have autism, and those who need to develop social skills. About a year ago, they formed a planning committee, and last week were approved by the City Council to rezone the property from residential single family to a planned mixed use development.
The property includes a house and a barn, which sit nearly 200 feet off of the road.
"We found this property here and it was appropriate for what we wanted to do," O'Connell said. "People could come and be in a situation where they were secure and safe. That we could teach them how to go outside, and maybe raise a garden."
Often, people with autism don't leave their home because they don't like hot or cold weather, or change in general, O'Connell said.
"This would give them this opportunity, this big piece of property," she said.
O'Connell said she's received positive feedback from families who are interested in what she's offering. O'Connell said sheltered workshops don't have trained personnel to serve an adult with autism.
"Since January, I've had parents contact me, and they say they don't know what's going to happen with their children when they age out of the school system," she said. "I know there's a need. I know parents are anxiously awaiting for us to open this."
The social skills programs the O'Connells plan to offer could help people who may not be specifically diagnosed medically with autism. Their daughter is one example because she hasn't been diagnosed with autism, but has other disabilities that put her in the special education community, Michael O'Connell said.
"There's so many varieties of this syndrome, and so many kids who have special needs, she would fit anywhere in the program," he said.
Typically, families who make decisions about a relative with autism are put in a difficult place of staying home with them, or finding a place for them to go during the day.
"We want to make sure kids stay at home and live in a family, and then they have a place to go during the day," Mary O'Connell said. "If they don't have a place to go, then parents are going to have to say, 'I've got to put them in a group home, I've got to do something. I can't handle this.' That's our hope, that's our goal."
The O'Connells hope to open in mid-October with four clients and one other instructor along with Mary O'Connell. They have an open house planned for 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Sept. 30.