DANVERS — Two Beverly women are spending their days lately at the Liberty Tree Mall, but they're not there to just to shop.
Instead, they're getting a chance to come out of their shells and stand on their own through #Opportunities, a new adult day habilitation program run by Northeast Arc.
The program opened this summer at the mall, in a former storefront bank space across from Panera and adjacent to Buffalo Wild Wings. Northeast Arc, a Danvers-based nonprofit that provides programs and services to help those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has set its innovative life skills program in a mall so participants can gain confidence and social skills in a real-world setting.
The new program serves those with intellectual or developmental disabilities and those on the autism spectrum. It uses what the mall has to offer — stores, services like nail or hair salons, and the fitness center — to teach skills that focus on health, well-being and self-help.
Victoria Halpern, 27, who with 21-year-old Kristina Martin make up the program's participants, said #Opportunities is helping her become more independent.
"And helping me with making change ... like eating more healthy food," she said.
To build their sensory and motor skills, participants go for hikes. At the mall, they have been offered introductory memberships to Best Fitness and can go to the Sky Zone indoor trampoline park. They have to manage their time and money, work with their peers, go to stores and interact with other patrons.
At the food court, they're tasked with making healthy meal choices. They can go food or holiday shopping, or buy new clothes. Before heading out to shop, they can use laptops and iPads at the #Opportunities storefront to research what they want to buy first.
Lucy Ridley, #Opportunities program director, said the interplay between the mall and its participants depends on the skill they are developing.
"So the health and wellness and sensorimotor skills we could utilize the gym or Sky Zone, or it could be kind of those regular daily living skills: money management, budgeting, transnational communication skills by running errands and purchasing things at the mall," she said.
Because the mall is accessible by bus, participants can practice using public transportation to get around. They also have access to speech/language, occupational, physical and behavioral therapists.
The program is designed for people who are at least 18 years old and who can be in a community setting with minimal direct staff supervision. Participants either have MassHealth Standard coverage or can pay privately.
Northeast Arc offers both full week and partial week options, for those with part-time jobs. Although the program has two participants now, the agency says it has received referrals for at least four more.
Martin graduated from Northshore Academy at the Northshore Education Consortium and is studying baking at North Shore Community College's culinary arts program. As someone who struggles in social settings, she said she likes the #Opportunities program.
"It's getting me to meet new people," she said.
Halpern, a 2011 graduate of Beverly High School, agreed.
"It's great," Halpern said. "It helps me with my social anxiety."
Halpern said she has made strides since joining.
"My mom was telling me that I'm very social now," Halpern said. "Before I started the program I was kind of home a lot." Halpern said crowds send her anxiety "over the roof," so the program wound up taking her to Salem before Haunted Happenings, she said.
"You did really, really well," said Ridley, who said the women also took the subway to Boston on Tuesday.
"It was the first time going to Boston in awhile," said Halpern, who said the city was not very crowded, but it was cold, rainy and windy. They went to Quincy Market and ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe.
Tim Brown, Northeast Arc's director of innovation and strategy, said #Opportunities opened for a few clients in July who were attending programs elsewhere, while the program waited for its day habilitation license from the state. The license was approved at the end of August.
Brown said it took a bit longer to get state approval partly because of the program's setting.
"It was a six-month process," he said. "Parts of this doesn't fit neatly in boxes so there had to be more conversations than we thought."
Brown said the MBTA access was a major reason why Northeast Arc chose the mall to house the program.
"Learning how to navigate your communities is so important," Brown said, "and most of the folks that will be in this program and that we support don't have their driver's license. So, learning bus routes is something really important that folks have to learn."
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.