Frank McCabe was looking to change the routine. For years, he traveled more than 45 minutes to take his autistic son, Frankie, to the nearest applied learning center in Peabody. McCabe, like many parents struggling to raise a child with autism, needed the help of certified professionals to educate his son, but the long drive was difficult.
Eventually, the stars began to align and he found a better way.
McCabe, along with three lifelong friends from Lowell, realized a dream this past spring when they opened the PrideStar Center for Applied Learning in their hometown. Since then, PCAL has provided educational, recreational and practical life skills training to children and young adults with autism and other neurological, behavioral and cognitive disorders, as well as support and guidance for their families. The programs are offered after school, over the summer, or during holidays to supplement — not replace — a traditional education.
For McCabe, serving as the executive vice president of PCAL is about providing the opportunity of a lifetime to his 13-year-old son.
“As I parent, I wanted to give back and do something good for him,” McCabe says. “It’s a good mission of work. Working parents need a place, a safe haven where they can get quality programming, where these kids get help from registered, licensed professionals who do this for a living.”
For David Daly, CEO of PrideStar EMS, and co-founder and chairman of PCAL, helping oversee the business end of the project gave him an opportunity to help McCabe, one of his oldest and closest friends. For Lyn Snow, the center’s executive director, the project served as the culmination of a lifetime of work in special education. For Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Miller, the center provided the opportunity to convert his volunteer efforts into a full-time job.
The quartet agreed that founding the organization in their hometown was important.
“We’re all Lowell lovers,” Snow says. “Lowell is a big city, but it’s also such a small town. Because we’re from here, so many people have reached out to us. One of our missions is to be able to strengthen this community.”
Another PCAL mission is to teach young people, ages 3 to 22, day-to-day life skills such as cooking and cleaning in order to improve their ability to live independently.
“We’re able to take a population of kids and bring them to be more of a productive population,” Snow says. “We want to give them the skills they need to get a job and live on their own.”
The thoughtfully-planned layout of the center, which looks more like the inside of a house, facilitates the education PCAL provides. There’s a mock apartment upstairs where participants can learn to make beds and clean rooms. Across the hall, there’s a full kitchen. Downstairs, a recreation room, a quiet sensory room, and rooms for educational purposes where they work with credentialed professionals.
Since every situation is unique, the training is personally tailored to the family and the needs of each client. The PCAL staff holds regular meetings with families to keep them up to date and to bring parents together since, as Snow acknowledges, “having a child with autism is often isolating.”
More PCAL centers based on the Lowell model are possible in the future.
“I can foresee these centers up and down I-495,” Miller says. “There’s just such a need.”
In the meantime, the center in Lowell continues to grow, receiving as many as three to five referrals per week. Their work has already paid dividends.
“To see the children come in and out of the center, knowing that we’re having such a positive impact on their lives and the lives of their families,” Daly says, “that’s the most rewarding feeling for me.”
PrideStar Center for Applied Learning