We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Denise Resnik. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Denise below.
Hi Denise, thanks for joining us today. What sort of legacy are you hoping to build. What do you think people will say about you after you are gone, what do you hope to be remembered for?
While a legacy may be determined later in life, it’s the result of how we live our daily priorities, are energized by passionate pursuits and learn each step of the way.
Early on, my family instilled in my sister and me the concept of tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repair the world.” We spent many weekend hours volunteering in our community with causes that included juvenile diabetes, Children’s Hospital and feeding the poor. We learned skills and a sense of responsibility, and were rewarded by feelings of accomplishment, the privilege of helping others and, well OK, an occasional trip to Baskin & Robbins!
Never did I imagine that my doing for others would translate into doing for ourselves and our own family. But it did.
Following our 2-year-old son’s 1993 diagnosis of autism when we were told to love, accept and plan to institutionalize him—and motivated by both love and fear—I sprang into action.
At the time, little was known about autism. The incidence was one in 2,500 children. The internet was just emerging and few interventions were supported by data.
With a circuitous and uncertain path ahead—and with our kids, including Matt’s 17-month-older sister Ally, leading as North Stars—I co-founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) in 1997 with a bold vision to support individuals with autism and their families throughout their lifetimes. By 1999, our board was already considering a strategic plan for housing that turned out to be premature. We needed to grow up with our kids, advance the organization and build a supportive community now recognized by PBS NewsHour as “the most autism-friendly city in the world.” But we also never wanted Ally to have to replace us as Matt’s parents, which required building a uniquely supportive community.
This year, SARRC celebrates its 25th anniversary. Nearly 220 people strong with a stellar senior leadership team and board, SARRC has an $18-plus million operating budget, international reputation and an expansive goal of serving people throughout Arizona.
We’re also celebrating the 10-year anniversary of First Place® AZ, SARRC’s sister nonprofit with a vision of ensuring housing and community options are as bountiful for people with autism and other neurodiversities as they are for everyone else.
Fueling a new wave of residential and community development is part of my every day along with engaging leaders to continue raising the bar for how we integrate special populations into the fabric of society through housing, healthcare, education, employment, supportive systems and culture.
Our work with current and emerging leaders is supported by helping them access resources, programs, tools, connections and the power of our example through the collaborations we foster, real estate we develop and communities we build. Together, we can—and will—open doors enabling people with autism, Down syndrome and other neurodiversities to find more places to live as valued, contributing members of our community and communities everywhere.
While both fortifying and humbling to realize a vision and be part of something bigger than ourselves, I didn’t expect the journey to take this long! I now appreciate this is a journey I don’t expect will end. Communities, like people, need continuous care and feeding to be strong and resilient. As the mother of a son with autism and a community developer, my work is never done. Perhaps that becomes part of my legacy, too!
Denise, love having you share your insights with us. Before we ask you more questions, maybe you can take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers who might have missed our earlier conversations?
I am a mother on a mission, determined to fuel a new wave of home and community options for people with autism, neurodiversities and other different abilities.
A native Phoenician, my first job as an ASU graduate in 1982 was with the Del E. Webb Corporation, the pioneer of senior housing. In 1986, at age 25, I started my own marketing and PR firm, now known as DRA Collective, focused on real estate and community development.
My most important title is that of wife of 38 years and mother of two amazing adult children, Rabbi Ally Resnik Jacobson and Matt Resnik. Matt was diagnosed with autism in 1993 at age 2. It was a time when people thought I was talking about his being “artistic” because autism was nowhere on anyone’s radar, let alone ripe for diagnosis or treatment.
In 1997, I co-founded the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) with another mom on a mission, Dr. Cindy Schneider, and our developmental pediatrician, Dr. Raun Melmed. Together, we were laser focused on answering questions—and questioning many of those answers, too.
In 2012, I founded and currently serve as president/CEO of First Place® AZ, which developed First Place–Phoenix as a housing model for special populations and to serve as an R&D site for innovations in supports and related technology. As a native Phoenician, I appreciate how Arizona pioneers like Del Webb, Ed Robson and Sharon Harper advanced models for senior housing throughout the decades so people today enjoy robust support options, price points and locations—my ultimate goal for the First Place Global Leadership Institute and the special populations we serve.
With more than 70,000 children with autism transitioning to adulthood annually, we don’t have decades for the marketplace to advance. We must leap forward with a formula where more extensive supports are available—and funded—early in adult life, increasing levels of independence, quality of life and housing choices while reducing costs throughout their lifetimes.
Backed by 25 years of research, support from the Urban Land Institute and more than 100 collaborators from the public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, First Place AZ is positioned for transformational impact on how society approaches housing and community development for individuals with autism and other neurodiversities.
First Place–Phoenix, the nonprofit’s first new property, opened mid-2018 with the bold vision of ensuring housing and community options for adults with autism and other neurodiversities are as bountiful as they are for everyone else. The 81,000-square-foot, $15.4 million property, set within the heart of the Greater Phoenix community, represents a new residential prototype demonstrating greater opportunities for employment, lifelong education, healthcare and recreational options that create more choices for more independent living. Please join us on a virtual tour. www.firstplaceaz.org
Have you ever had to pivot?
Our family plan included six years of pre-kid marriage, establishing my thriving marketing and PR firm and a new home for our expanded family. Following the birth of our second child Matt—17 months after our daughter Ally—I thought our lives were proceeding as I had hoped, dreamed and prayed.
What we never counted on was autism. I barely knew what it was, where to go or what to do to find help or try to conquer the fear that one day our son would be institutionalized. By co-founding SARRC in 1997, I set hopeful sights on helping create a different life for him and others. That was pivot #1.
Our home became a classroom. I added many unseen titles after my name, including researcher, nurse, chemist, physician and dietician, among others.
Pivot #2 happened around 2010 when it was becoming clear that, as a nonprofit focused on clinical services and research, SARRC’s plan for real estate development could not be successfully advanced.
The result was the 2012 creation of First Place AZ, a sister nonprofit to SARRC focused on real estate and community development and requiring a different risk tolerance and balance sheet. A second nonprofit was critically important to avoid confusing the community or compromising established, generous support for SARRC.
Let’s talk about resilience next – do you have a story you can share with us?
For me, the best illustration of resilience is transitioning from a state of hopelessness, questioning whether I could smile again, to arriving at a place with renewed purpose and joy-filled days through SARRC and now at First Place–Phoenix, Matt’s home away from our family home. More importantly, this innovative, urban apartment community connected to the broader, supportive community has also created resilience for Matt, our family and me.
During the pandemic, we become stronger by illustrating the resilience of a supportive community committed to a shared cause and vision for what it means to live with different abilities and disabilities outside of a family home—and in the broader community.
- Website: https://www.firstplaceaz.org/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/firstplaceaz/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FirstPlaceAZ/
- Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/company/first-place-arizona/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/firstplaceaz
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCd15Uh9cN4emR3HsZtRn_rQ
Sydnee Schwartz/Good Eye! Media