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Meet Denise Resnik of First Place AZ in Midtown

Today we’d like to introduce you to Denise Resnik.

Denise, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Since the first day the school bus arrived, I have been dreaming about a future residence for our son and others like him. I have spent the better part of two decades researching, evaluating and exploring residential concerns. This summer, we celebrated the opening of First Place–Phoenix, set in the heart of our urban area.

As co-founder in 1997 of the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and founder in 2012 of First Place®AZ, my focus has been on residential and community development. I have remained committed to an early vision and belief that if we could do what was right for our community — the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area — then, we could do what was right for communities everywhere!

As SARRC co-founder and board chair, I authored our first strategic plan on living options in 1999. Here’s a brief excerpt: “As history has demonstrated, only with the help of passionate volunteers, generous corporate contributors and dedicated professionals will we realize our vision: to provide a secure home for adults with autism, where individuals can live with respect, dignity and independence based on their unique needs and abilities; where they will be able to choose from among a diverse range of educational, recreational and vocational opportunities and living options; and where they will be integrated with the community just as the community will become part of and take pride in them.”

First Place AZ is an independent 501(c)(3) positioned for transformational impact on how society approaches housing and community development for individuals with different abilities and responds to that looming question: “Who will care for my child when I’m no longer able to?”

Backed by the evaluation of more than 100 residential properties and programs across the U.S. and focus groups involving more than 100 family members and individuals with special needs, our first new property, First Place–Phoenix is now operating and serving as home to 32 people. A beta site property demonstrating the value of skill development and community integration has also been operating for more than three years.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Our history and lessons learned to fill the cabinets and shelves of our “peace room,” many of which will be shared at the First Place Global Leadership Institute Fall Symposium from October 24-26. For more details, check out this link:

We’re eager to share what we’ve learned on this extraordinary journey through a collection of major lessons, hoping to inspire others to join us as we collaborate to make that “new wave” a reality.

Lesson #1: Build a trusted team that can agree — and agree to disagree

Developing real estate can be a long and winding road, complete with right turns, wrong turns, and U-turns. Market cycles play a big role, as do finances, local jurisdictions, neighbors and, most importantly, vision.

First Place has benefitted greatly from the unwavering commitment of private, public, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders who never stopped believing in our vision, empowering us to follow through on the completion of our first innovative property and to begin planning for others.

Building trust is critical — trust in expertise, judgment and in each other — as is knowing all team members are in your corner, even when they don’t agree. A unanimous decision from a board of directors often requires active, detailed discussion and significant time after which unexpected solutions often come to light. In our case, those solutions required angels. We found those angels among our most trusted advisors who had been providing us with counsel, clarity, and resources for more than a decade.

Remember to keep those angels close. They will watch over you and protect you.

Here are a few other important lessons we’ve learned:

2. Invest early in research and discovery to inform your vision.
3. Recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
4. Don’t fall in love or marry your plan too soon.
5. Appreciate that timeouts are not just for kids.
6. Focus on life course outcomes.
7. Explore treasures in your own backyard. There’s no place like home!

Please tell us about First Place AZ.
Backed by 20 years of research, support from the Urban Land Institute and more than 100 collaborators, First Place® AZ is positioned for transformational impact on how society approaches housing and community development for individuals with autism and other neuro-diversities. It represents new residential prototypes — allowing greater choice — based on individual needs and interests.

We’re realizing this bold vision through our first major development, First Place–Phoenix. Now open in the heart of the urban region, three primary components of our model open doors to those seeking more options. Residents of the First Place Apartments enjoy a suite of services and amenities, with all the benefits of community-connected living: transportation, healthcare, employment, continuing education, and recreation. Participants enrolled in the two-year First Place Transition Academy learn independent living skills, helping them integrate into the fabric of the community as citizens, neighbors, employees, and friends. The First Place Global Leadership Institute is our catalyst for advancing replicable options — a center where families, people with autism and thought leaders collaborate on housing solutions through training, education, research, and public policy.

First Place–Phoenix, a $15.4 million development, is within walking distance of light rail and public transit near supportive, welcoming neighbors. The 1.4-acre site was strategically selected with proximity to Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center (SJHMC) and Barrow Neurological Institute (BNI).

(1) The First Place Apartments, with 55 studio, one-, two- and four-bedroom units, has a capacity of approximately 80 residents (supportive housing for residents, including ASU doctoral fellows and Teach For America alumni).
(2) The First Place Transition Academy, a two-year, tuition-based residential program for young adults with autism, is operated by the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center (SARRC) and includes a two-year curriculum with 32 semester-length courses.
(3) The First Place Global Leadership Institute represents a faculty of experts from across the country focused on pressing concerns that open doors to more housing and independent living options for individuals with special needs. Its five centers facilitate the critical work and impact of First Place and include: the Maricopa IDA Center for Education, Training & Employment; Center for Real Estate & Community Development; Colonel Harland Sanders Center for Applied Research; Mulzet Center for Expression/Communication; and Daniel Jordan Fiddle Center for Public Policy

We’re different. First Place AZ is focused on developing new residential models that maximize independence, community integration, personal enrichment and quality of life by supporting adults with special needs to live more independently. At the same time, First Place is building on-ramps with community partners to increase the capacity for members of this population.

We’d love for you to join us as members of our supportive community!

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
Being very shy as a young girl, my favorite memory involved my ventriloquist puppet who joined me as a volunteer entertaining children with special needs.

Contact Info:

  • Address: First Place-Phoenix, 3001 N. Third Street, Phoenix, AZ 85012
  • Website:
  • Phone: 602.464.6620
  • Email:
  • Facebook: Facebook-/FirstPlaceAZ
  • Twitter: Twitter- @FirstPlaceAZ

Image Credit:

Stephen G. Dreiseszun/Viewpoint Photographers, Sydnee Schwartz

Getting in touch: VoyagePhoenix is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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