Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Days of Their LIVES: Disabilities are No Obstacle for These SUNY Geneseo Grads

When college seniors Hannah Brown, Justine DeLuca, Kaleb King, and Tom Ruf walk across the Wadsworth Auditorium stage as part of the Ella Cline Shear School of Education Convocation on Friday, May 11th, they will look back on their college years as the time of their LIVES.

"We're excited because we've been working for this for the past four years, but we're nervous because we are leaving behind part of ourselves," explains Kaleb, who will earn a place in SUNY Geneseo history as a member of the first graduating class of the LIVES Program.

Tom, Justine, Hannah and Kaleb
LIVES, which stands for Learning Independence, Vocational, and Educational Skills, allows a close-knit group of students with disabilities to experience the academic and social aspects of university life while preparing for careers that fit their interests and skill sets.

Since entering the LIVES Program as freshmen, Hannah, Justine, Kaleb, and Tom have blossomed under the guidance of LIVES Teacher Danielle Everts and Life Skills Assistant Sue Sullivan, discovering and working toward career goals—and finding out that their aspirations aren't so different from their non-disabled counterparts.  Kaleb is pursuing a career as a graphic designer, Hannah will work at a school, Justine will enter the world of retail, and Tom aspires to work in a restaurant.

The LIVES Program is made up of students who are diagnosed with developmental or intellectual disabilities, such as Down Syndrome or Autism.  Upon acceptance into the program, each student participates in an individualized diagnostic assessment. Based on these assessments, and information from students regarding their individual goals and needs, a plan of study is developed.  At the end of a successful four-year term, students are awarded a Certificate of Completion at commencement.

LIVES students are routinely found auditing traditional classes, participating in tests and homework assignments, and partaking in placements that are similar to internships.  According to Justine, they live pretty typical college lives, with experiences that mirror those of their non-disabled peers.

"I was a very shy person when I first started college," she explains.  "I would have trouble talking to even one person. Now I've learned that it's okay to share how I feel.  Music really helped me to get out of my shell."

Justine's breakthrough came when she audited a dance/yoga class, where she felt comfortable expressing her creativity.  Soon, she was actively participating in all types of group presentations with her LIVES peers.  Justine's increased confidence led to a placement in the SUNY Geneseo mailroom, where she found her groove sorting and delivering mail throughout campus.

Upon graduation, Justine will put those skills to work as a clerk at Finders Keepers, a Mount Morris thrift store operated by The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit agency that provides services for individuals with disabilities.

Hannah will also find employment at a branch of The Arc, as a helper at KidStart, the agency's children's services program.  She will work there part-time after graduation while pursuing her GED and earning First Aid certifications.  At the end of the 15-month GED program, she hopes to secure a full-time job as a KidStart aide.

The LIVES Program enabled Hannah to gain experience in her chosen field through placements in the School of Education and a practicum at Geneseo Central School.  Hannah cites Geneseo Professor Annmarie Urso's Classroom Management class as an inspiration for her career pursuits.

"This is an upper division undergraduate class on how to manage a classroom," Dr. Urso explains.  "Hannah participated eagerly, was a good cooperative partner on in-class activities, and added to our class. Having a GED will open up several opportunities for her."

At 55 years old, Tom is among SUNY Geneseo's oldest graduating students.  While he aspires to work in the field of food service, the LIVES experience itself was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

"Tom's goal since I started working with him was always to go back to school," says Kathy Grant, who supervises an Arc-operated group home in Avon where Tom lives.  "Even though Tom is a non-traditional student in terms of age, he has been a committed participant these past four years.  Tom rarely misses a day of school, and he looks forward to going each and every day. I believe that being on the campus keeps his mind and body sharp."

At graduation, Tom will receive the Ella Cline Shear Hero Award, the highest award given out by SUNY Geneseo's School of Education.

Kaleb entered the LIVES Program with an aptitude for art, which he was able to refine by mastering Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, and other computer design tools.  Since joining the LIVES Program, he has illustrated political cartoons for SUNY Geneseo's student newspaper, The Lamron; his art has been displayed at the College Union Gallery; and he designed the logo that represents the LIVES Program.  His immediate post-college design ambitions include freelance work for Rochester-based Rhino's Pizzeria.

"My advice to the future LIVES students is to be true to yourself, never question the things that matter to you, and always be flexible when it comes to change," Kaleb says.

The LIVES Program strives to admit 8-10 new students each year.  The program is funded through a collaborative partnership with the college, The Arc, Genesee Valley Educational Partnership (GVEP),  and Finger Lakes Developmental Disabilities Services Office.  It was conceived by SUNY Geneseo Assistant Dean for Disability Services Tabitha Buggie-Hunt and Professor Elizabeth Hall, who are optimistic for the future of the program and its quartet of 2012 graduates.

"While the program is still a work in progress as I suppose all programs are, I am very pleased with the strides our students have made in the areas of academics, socialization and independence," Dr. Buggie-Hunt says.  "I am, however, most gratified and surprised by the way each student has really blossomed in his or her ability to self-advocate and make career decisions.  All of our graduates will be pursuing work that suits their interests and abilities, and we could not ask for anything better than that."

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