A program to help teach adults with autism has started in Marianna. Its future home is on the site of one of the city’s most infamous locations.
NextStep at Endeavor Academy, a program helping adults with autism develop employment and independent living skills, launched its 12-week pilot program out of Chipola College in late January. The program’s future home is Endeavor Park, a mixed-use development currently being renovated at the former site of the infamous Dozier School for Boys.
NextStep Program Director Tammy Dasher said once the site is completed, the program will offer a two-year residency program for adults with autism aimed at helping them live independently and enter the workforce.
Dasher said the program is filling a need in Jackson County, where few options for adult autism programs exist.
“It’s just hard to find services for adults, and adults with autism are some of the most underemployed individuals with disabilities,” Dasher said. “They really have a lot of potential if they could just get a chance.”
The two-year program is based on a similar program first used in Arizona. It includes 32 modules that teach skills that include employment, budgeting, cooking, safety, medicine management, and public transportation, Dasher said.
More than 100 boys died at the Dozier School, which operated from 1900 to 2011. Dozens of bodies were found on the site. Hundreds of former students came forward recounting how they were abused and tortured by school staff.
In 2018, Jackson County was given the since-abandoned property. Since then, the county received a $5.8 million grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to redevelop the site into Endeavor Park, which will house a museum, community center and the NextStep program.
The campus currently under construction will include a teaching apartment and a demonstration kitchen to help teach those related skills. The program is also partnering with local businesses in Marianna to help get their students working experience.
Dasher said she was surprised by the number of businesses and people willing to get involved with the program.
“I’ve been in the business of special education for 29 years. I’ve never had so many people say, ‘I want to hire your students,’ and many more places that are willing to open their doors,” she said. “I credit Jackson County with that, because they’re really involved and engaged in this project.”
She said she recognizes the horrific past of the site, but believes the area’s redevelopment is helping fill services needed in rural Jackson County.
“I love putting the focus on what’s coming out of it. I think it’s a real opportunity to have beauty from ashes, because there isn’t really anything like this in our area,” she said.