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Launch of the Marianna program for adults with autism on the site of the former Dozier school for boys

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A teaching assistance program for autistic adults has started in Marianna. His future home sits on the site of one of the city’s most infamous spots.

NextStep at Endeavor Academy, a program helping adults with autism develop career and independent living skills, launched its 12-week pilot program from Chipola College in late January. The future home of the program is Endeavor Park, a mixed-use development currently being renovated on the former site of the infamous Dozier School for Boys.

Currently, the future site of the program is still under renovation, said the director of the NextStep program Tammy Dasher. Once 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 fills a need in Jackson County, where there are few options for adult autism programs.

“It’s just hard to find adult services, and adults with autism are some of the most underemployed people with disabilities,” Dasher said. “They really have a lot of potential if they could just have a chance.”

The two-year program is based on a similar program first used in Arizona. It includes 32 modules that teach skills such as employment, budgeting, cooking, safety, medication management and public transportation, Dasher said.

A sign promoting NextStep at Endeavor Academy stands on the outskirts of the property that once housed the Dozier School for Boys.

More than 100 boys have died at Dozier School, which operated from 1900 to 2011. Dozens of bodies have been recovered from the site. Hundreds of alumni came forward telling how they had been abused and tortured by school staff.

In 2018 Jackson County received the since abandoned property. Since then, the county has 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 demonstration kitchen to help teach these related skills. The program also partners with local businesses in Marianna to help their students gain work experience.

Dasher said she was surprised at the number of companies and people willing to get involved with the program.

“I have worked in the field of special education for 29 years. I’ve never had so many people say, ‘I want to hire your students,’ and so many more places that are ready to open,” she said. “I attribute that to Jackson County because they are really involved and committed to this project.”

She said she recognizes the site’s horrific past, but believes redevelopment of the area helps fulfill needed services in rural Jackson County.

“I love emphasizing what comes out of it. I think it’s a real opportunity to have the beauty of the ashes, because there’s not really anything like that in our area,” she said.


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