Addition More Than Doubles Square Footage Available to Students.

Just when other students in Okaloosa County prepare for a winter break, one school’s students celebrate their opening day.

The Emerald Coast Learning Center, or ECLC, welcomed about 80 students to the campus – which has a perpetual lease on property owned by Northwest Florida State College.

Even from above, the multimillion-dollar, 20 thousand-square-foot facility makes a statement on the westernmost part of the college’s campus.

Students settle into their new campus – the first couple of days will focus on making sure the preteens, teens, and young adults are comfortable in their new surroundings – which includes lockers, a full working kitchen to feed and train students, as well as a drive-through window, which students will use to serve customers at the Light It Up Brew Coffee Shop in the near future.

The center has goals for these kids. Goals to see them lead full lives thanks to the workforce and life skills they will gain from their time here.

Henry's Story - From Nonverbal to Speaking.

Dr. Justin and Angie Manley’s thirteen-year-old son, Henry, is one of those children. Henry has a language processing delay that made it harder for him to speak and understand language than it is for other children.

Before coming to the Emerald Coast Autism Center, Henry had access to two weekly speech therapy sessions. Now, he gets more than 20 hours of one-on-one speech therapy while in school at ECLC.

“There are no words for how much he has grown since his time being here,” Justin Manley said, “and the acceleration [of his growth]. He could have been thirty years old before he learned to talk and speak and interact the way that he has.”

Dr. Manley is an Air Force medical doctor- and plans to separate from the military soon. His freedom to practice wherever he likes means more competition with other regions and cities for his sought-after skills.

He searched all over for a place for Henry, going as far as Colorado, before settling in Niceville and deciding to stay here – because the ECLC is here.

This center made a difference for the Manleys – who believe other parents will come to the same conclusion they did and bring their children and their own talents to the local economy.

“The community is only going to get bigger, it’s long-term potential is huge. I think that families will want to move here and stay here,” Dr. Manley added.

The Economics of An Autism Center

The Manleys think this center can bring many more people to the area for its services. 

Founders Heidi Blalock and Staci Berriman believe the new jobs facility will help their students lead fulfilled lives – after all, employers are beating down the doors to hire their kids. 

“They will hopefully have a job that fills them with joy and a purpose,” Co-founder of the ECLC Berriman said, “We have a little joke: we want kids to light up like a Christmas tree when they go to work.”

Currently, many resorts in Destin and South Walton hire people on work visas to clean rooms, do laundry, and other similar tasks. They rely on these workers because they can’t find many people locally to do that work. The founders of ECAC say their program could operate as a catalyst for change in the workforce. 

“We like to remind [managers and business owners] that our families are here and our families pay taxes in Okaloosa County,” Berriman said with a laugh, “When we went out and spoke to them, we found that one of the needs was laundry in the resort area and customer service and custodial. A lot of those jobs are more challenging to fill. They are coming to us.”

Because building timelines are a guessing game, especially regarding big facilities – the leadership team at the Learning Center says they held back on student enrollment. Good news for you if you are looking for a slot in the program: They have space in the Learning Center and in the Autism Center to prepare students for careers. 

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