This December, thousands of young North Texans will anxiously await letters of early acceptance to universities across the country. But not Michael Poston and Chris Wheeler. They already know where they'll land when they leave the nest next summer.
Michael, 22, and Chris, 21, will be the first residents, and roommates, at Daymark Living, a soon-to-open community for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Waxahachie.
Daymark Living isn't exclusively for college-aged adults. It's designed to be a home for young people whose siblings, friends and peers are transitioning from high school to the adult world.
When Michael's dad, John Poston, dropped off Michael's twin sister, Margot, at the airport for her first year of college, he returned home to find Michael in the same spot he'd been in when they left, sitting on the sofa, watching videos on his smartphone. John knew his youngest son deserved to experience life as a great adventure, just like his other children.
It wasn't the first time he'd felt so moved. When Michael and Margot were babies, John founded an inclusive, accredited preschool, the Ashford Rise School of Dallas, that would cater to both traditional learners like Margot and those like Michael, who has Down syndrome.
Now located within the Moody Family YMCA, the Rise School of Dallas is an offshoot of the University of Alabama Rise Center. It was the center's first satellite location, and today there are a total of six Rise schools across the south and southwest.
Michael and Chris both attended the Rise School of Dallas until it was time to move into the public school system for kindergarten. Chris' dad, Tim Wheeler, says Highland Park High School offered top-notch opportunities for Chris. His son made a strong system of friends, including traditional learners, and he gained vocational skills through a part-time catering job the school provided.
Students like Chris may continue attending public school through the school year in which they turn 22. After that, next steps are less clear.
"We're the first generation whose kids [with intellectual and developmental disabilities] went through mainstream schools," Tim says, referring to an era when people with disabilities were often institutionalized at birth. Secondary school has been a resource for their family, but now, Chris is in a transitional stage where other young people are going to college and getting jobs.
"The community just shrinks after high school," Tim says, adding that it causes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to feel isolated.
He notes that, as a parent, he doesn't allow his other children sit around in their rooms all day because he knows that wouldn't be healthy. Gesturing to Chris and Michael, he says, "These guys have way more similarities with other kids than not."
When Daymark Living opens next summer — tentatively projected for June — the structured daily schedule is filled to keep residents engaged, both within the Daymark community and the world outside of it. Some will take a daily shuttle to work in Dallas or Fort Worth, each about 30 minutes from Waxahachie.
Those who don't yet have jobs will attend classes on financial literacy, leadership, practical math and vocational exploration. The idea is that every member of the community will eventually enter the workforce with the ultimate goal of empowering all Daymark Living members to have financial independence.
Most currently available jobs for people with intellectual delays pay minimum wage and mean a lifetime of living under the poverty level with government assistance, John says. Other employers have never even considered hiring a person with intellectual and developmental delays.
They clearly haven't met his youngest son. During a recent visit to the future Daymark Living site, Michael said he can't wait to explore the workforce. It's his top priority.
Michael works at the Moody Family YMCA and at the Rise School, but he wants a career. Like many young adults, he says he's not set on what he wants to do, but right now, he loves the idea of becoming party planner who makes elaborate cakes and desserts for entertaining. He doesn't bake yet, but he's confident he can learn, as he has with his many other hobbies.
"There are really too many to list," he says of those hobbies. But as we talk, the details fill in: He has a girlfriend, he loves Bloodline, Stranger Things and Game of Thrones, and Chris joins him on a Special Olympics basketball team. Chris bowls, as well, and is an avid Dallas Cowboys fan.
Michael's on Instagram, listens to folk and gospel music, and says having sleepovers with Chris is one of his favorite pastimes. He wants to become a church leader in his Young Life group and to travel.
On that note, he says Waxahachie isn't really far enough from his parents. He loves them, of course, but he's itching to stretch his wings. He'd really like to move to West Hollywood like his sister did; maybe one day, he says.
Dr. Patricia Evans, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Children's Health and director of Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center, works with families to prepare teen patients "to one day be as autonomous as possible," she says. Ideally, young adults will be able to achieve lofty goals, but she stresses that each individual thrives best under a "tailor-made" plan respective to their individual abilities.
John says Daymark Living's programs will make work and social opportunities a priority. Similar to college or trade school, some residents will stay there for two to four years before moving on. Others may stay indefinitely; it's up to each family to determine the best course of action.
Each person has long-term goals and plans, and Daymark Living programming is designed to help its residents get there. In addition to the life skills classes, there's also daily time carved out for enrichment through creative writing and book club discussions, as well as regular social activities like pancake breakfasts, game nights, dances and trips, including to the Scarborough Renaissance Festival and the Dallas Arts District.
Fitness and nutrition take priority, too. The facilities will feature a 24-hour gym with specialized equipment, sports courts, running trails and a resort-style pool. There will also be a clubhouse with a game room and movie theater, computer labs, and community grills and fire pits. Two community dogs will roam the grounds as pets, and a dining hall will serve three meals per day, with menus developed with a dietitian.
John estimates that most Daymark Living residents will fall into the 20-40 age range, but there are no age limits or restrictions, as long as residents are a good fit. That means they are ambulatory, have no issues with aggressive behavior and are able to handle daily tasks like grooming and self-care.
The community will be licensed with the state as an assisted care facility, similar to those aimed at senior citizens, but the idea is that each resident lives as independently as possible. Some may need light supervision to help remember things like brushing their teeth or getting exercise, and that's why coaches will be on staff 24/7. There will also be a registered nurse on-site during the day and an EMT and off-duty police officer on-site at night.
"Convincing parents to let go will be the hardest part," Tim says. He and John are sympathetic. Both of them have raised traditional learners and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The transition out of the home presents unique challenges for every kid, they say.
That's why John was intentional in choosing to build Daymark as a for-profit business with investors and operational partners who he felt understood the facility to be a "purpose-built property," and not just another real estate deal. He'd watched the nonprofit Rise School struggle to stay afloat during its early days; the fundraising was never ending, the future never certain. "I need to know that this option will exist for Michael in the long term," he says of Daymark Living. "If it's profitable, I know it's sustainable."
He sees it as an investment, both as a real estate deal and for the residents who will live there. Rent at Daymark Living will cost $3,500 per month, and there aren't scholarships or financial aid options yet.
If that seems pricey, John notes it covers housing, utilities, tuition for classes and other programming, three meals per day, scheduled daily transportation from Waxahachie to public transportation hubs in D-FW, and what he describes as "a caring and nurturing staff."
"It's competitive with other post-high-school options," he says. In fact, according to the Daymark Living website, it may actually be less expensive than, say, comparable experiences at major Texas universities.
If the concept proves profitable, John wants to see it replicated in cities across the country. And if the Waxahachie community succeeds, financial aid could be an option in the future, or the company could build a range of communities at different costs.
Or: What if every member of the Daymark Living community could pay his or her own way? John thinks it's possible.
This fall, he organized a job fair at the State Fair of Texas open to all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, not just those affiliated with Daymark Living, and he says that's something he hopes to continue twice annually in North Texas.
He's also starting up another business, Good Deed Coffee Co., a commission-based subscription service in partnership with a high-quality fair trade roaster in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Many people will buy one bag for a good cause, he says, but if the product is stellar, it can maintain a customer base who likes the added bonus of helping both independent farmers and salespeople with intellectual and developmental disabilities. John calculates that a motivated seller could potentially provide enough income to fully cover his or her Daymark Living expenses. Michael will, of course, be the first to test the waters in an attempt to prove the concept's success.
In fact, he can't wait. If there is anyone as ambitious as John Poston, it's Michael Poston.