Young adults with physical challenges get a place of their own

Residents  Adam Laarhoven (from left), Matt Thompson and Ryan Carroll get settled in the main room at Champions Place. The facility is a first-of-a-kind residential community for physically challenged young adults. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

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Residents Adam Laarhoven (from left), Matt Thompson and Ryan Carroll get settled in the main room at Champions Place. The facility is a first-of-a-kind residential community for physically challenged young adults. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Champions Place is like a joyful dorm, with exuberant laughter and camaraderie in shared spaces. But this hidden gem in Johns Creek is a residential community created specifically for young adults with physical challenges.

The $5 million facility, funded through donations, opened debt-free in October 2020. It has all the bells and whistles to allow independent living for those who depend on assistance to get by.

Fourteen residents, ages 23-37, pay monthly rent for a private room and bath. They all have jobs or take college classes, and parents help with transportation and weekend meals. Caregivers and two doctoral occupational therapy students from Brenau University also live there. The residential wait list is long.

The best part about Champions Place is all the technology, says resident Garrett Couch, a Fulton County special education teacher. After a long day in the classroom, he returns home to doors that automatically open, wide doorways, and flat outdoor areas easy to maneuver with a wheelchair.

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Matt Thompson work with his computer table assistant in his room at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Matt Thompson work with his computer table assistant in his room at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Matt Thompson work with his computer table assistant in his room at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

“I love the relaxed nature of it,” says Couch, 35. “If you’ve had a busy day, you can relax outside by the fire and enjoy some quiet time. There’s also a lot to do – Karaoke at night and so many opportunities to enjoy one another’s company.”

Founder and director Rick Thompson of Johns Creek said Champions Place is one of a kind; no other place exists exclusively for young adults with physical challenges to live independent of their parents. His son Matt, was born with a form of cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and an assistive device for speaking.

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Matt Thompson looks out the window in his room at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Matt Thompson looks out the window in his room at Champions Place.  PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Matt Thompson looks out the window in his room at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Thompson and his wife, Nancy, wondered what would happen to Matt when they were no longer around to take care of him. Parents of other children with physical disabilities expressed similar concerns.

Thompson fueled those frustrations into action. In 2014, he led a group to form the nonprofit Champions Foundation, and they went to work. They brought in Georgia Tech to design disability-friendly spaces that accommodate wheelchairs and pulled together donations and partnerships from some of Atlanta’s corporate giants, like Coca-Cola and Home Depot, as well as three universities, Google and others.

As a result, Champions Place is not only a home but a test bed for products that give more autonomy to anyone living with a disability – from the donated Tommy Hilfiger adaptive clothing to Google voice and recognition technologies.

Paul Via, a volunteer who handles all the technology, said smart devices like automated doors, locks and thermostats are being tried out at Champions Place then installed in homes for others who want to be more self-reliant.

“We have density here,” said Thompson, “so we see problems, and we see solutions. We’re working with Google, so maybe we can come up with a solution so that others can benefit from it.”

Thompson constantly fields calls about Champions Place, and people around the country come to observe and see how they can replicate it where they live. Thompson tries to document all they’ve learned for others to follow but gives the same advice to all: “build community first.”

“We can’t give 100 people a place to live,” said Thompson, “but we can give them a social hub and community and friendships. We can automate their homes.”

The roots of Champions Place grew out of community from the Titans, a social and recreational group of physically challenged young adults and teens coming out of high school. Friendships have developed over a decade or more of wheelchair scrimmages at Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Johns Creek, followed by social gatherings.

Champions Place now serves as a hub for Titan get-togethers like cookouts and celebrations. It’s a tight-knit group, and all 14 residents bonded as Titans friends long before they moved in together.

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Josh Cusick (far right) tries to pull a stick out without dropping the balls during a game with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Josh Cusick (far right) tries to pull a stick out without dropping the balls during a game with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Josh Cusick (far right) tries to pull a stick out without dropping the balls during a game with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Residents Josh Cusick and Adam Laarhoven say they enjoy socializing with their friends most of all. Matthew Dooley, grandson of former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley, said he cherishes the independent living at Champions Place.

“I like to live as independently as possible away from my parents,” said Dooley, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around. “They have cared for me all my life and haven’t been able to travel, but now that I live here, they can do all the traveling. And now they can be my parents and not my caregivers.”

Resident coordinator Lisa Brasher has known some of these residents for two decades, first coaching them as youngsters in a YMCA wheelchair sports league. She keeps the “family” moving along, solving problems as they come up. Everyone involved in Champions Place is learning as they go.

“It’s great because I was blessed to watch them grow up, and now I get to hang with them as they’re adults,” Brasher said.


MORE DETAILS

For more: www.championscommunityfoundation.org

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Sarah Grace throws the ball during game of bocce with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Sarah Grace throws the ball during game of bocce with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

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Sarah Grace throws the ball during game of bocce with Brenau Occupational Therapy students at Champions Place. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner