Lizzie Ammons had fought too hard to let the prospect of college slip away when rumors began to circulate that Slippery Rock University might be shutting down its Rock Life program – one of some 300 college programs across the country for students. students with intellectual disabilities.
Ammons, 21, of Greensburg was born with Kabuki syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that is usually manifested by distinctive facial features, stunted growth, varying degrees of intellectual disability, and other issues.
She already experienced bitter disappointment in 2020 when Mercyhurst University suspended its Oasis program, which offered academic support to students with disabilities. She was one of 15 students enrolled in the two-year program in Erie.
Determined to continue after completing her freshman year, she transferred to Slippery Rock. Like Mercyhurst, Butler County Public University had a residential program for students with developmental disabilities.
Ammons thrived in Rock Life – taking classes, making friends, working out at the gym, setting up study dates, and meeting a friend, Katie, for coffee. Then a rumor spread last fall that Rock Life, like Oasis, was shutting down.
Within days, she and 14 other students – along with their friends and families – launched an online petition to save the program. They collected nearly 13,000 signatures.
“It hit us hard. There were a lot of tears, ”Ammons said during the Thanksgiving break at his parents’ restaurant in Greensburg, El Diablo Brewing Co. & Wood-Fired Kitchen. “It had happened to me once before and I didn’t want it to happen to other children.”
Ammons, who had climbed countless obstacles, became a staunch advocate for students like herself – though her parents were warned not to expect too much of her.
Rachel Flowers beamed as her daughter spoke. She had been a fighter from day one, when she faced one health crisis after another as an infant and toddler.
“For the first two years of her life, we were probably in the children’s hospital every two weeks,” Flowers said.
Objective: to work and live independently
The coalition that the Rock Life students forged with their parents, fellow Slippery Rock students, faculty and advocates has had an impact.
University officials were quick to label reports that they were ending the program misinformation. President William Behre said that rather than shutting down Rock Life, the school was closing admissions to the program for a year to reassess operations.
He said he would like to see the program strengthened. But he added that officials will need to find additional funds to fund the program, which he says costs the cash-strapped university $ 70,000 a year. This is in addition to the tuition and fees that students pay.
Students already enrolled in the program will have the opportunity to complete their work, Behre said. He insisted on his commitment to the program, adding that his doctorate was in special education and that he had started a similar program at the College of New Jersey.
Rock Life is tailored to the needs of each student and can last from two to six years. Students live on campus, are assigned life coaches, take classes, and are required to participate in clubs and sports and hold jobs.
Preparation for employment is an important skill for students with developmental disabilities. A recent study found that although there were nearly 430,000 adults in Pennsylvania with such disabilities, only about a quarter of them were employed.
The goal of Rock Life is to prepare students to work and live independently.
For Ammons, college was the culmination of years of hard work.
She has always been included in the daily life of her family. Helping out restaurants – the mainstay of downtown Sun Dawg Cafe and El Diablo – and lending a hand to his younger brother, Aden, 9, had given him a sense of accomplishment.
Equally important, Flowers said, her daughter found teachers at Greensburg Salem Middle School who built on this foundation. They challenged and encouraged Ammons to work for his dreams.
Growing up, Ammons had a role model in his brother, David, who was a year older and a gifted college student.
“He was one of those who convinced me I was going to go to college,” she said.
High School English teacher Jeremy Lenzi, who oversees the school yearbook, remembers Ammon as a joy to work with. She was ready to take on new roles and the others certainly liked her.
“Lizzie started in the yearbook as a freshman, and she’s done well,” Lenzi said. “She didn’t excel at first. Then in the second year, little by little, she took on more leadership roles in the group and accepted more responsibilities. By the time she was in her senior year, it was obvious that she should be one of the editors. “
Lenzi said he was not surprised Ammon was speaking out when it emerged his college agenda was on the line.
“I can understand that Lizzie, who saw it with her own eyes and took advantage of it, wishes others had the same opportunity,” he said.
18 of these programs in Pennsylvania.
Such opportunities are the culmination of 50 years of battles in the courts and legislative chambers.
Until the early 1970s, many people with intellectual disabilities were simply labeled retarded and pushed aside in massive public institutions or isolated in special education classrooms that often lacked resources to meet a wide variety of individual needs.
This started to change with a series of court decisions establishing the rights of these people. Appropriate free education has become the law of the land, leading to gradual changes.
In 2008, with the re-authorization of the Federal Higher Education Opportunities Act, funds were finally available for students like Ammons to pursue post-secondary education.
Cathryn Weir is a project coordinator for the Think College National Coordinating Center, hosted by the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The center tracks college programs for students with developmental disabilities and maintains an online database with information on each one.
Pennsylvania is home to 18 programs, ranging from Rock Life to Bear Cats, a long-established day program at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
Program data shows that students who take these programs find employment at significantly higher levels than the general population of people with developmental disabilities, Weir said.
“This is important, but also their social ties, their level of independence and self-determination and their ability to speak for themselves are also improving,” she said.
Weir said she works with four colleges that are implementing such programs.
Parents have been a driving force in creating such programs, but Weir said that at the start of these programs it was often about having an engaged person on campus knocking on doors and working to persuade officials of their value.
This is what happened at Slippery Rock.
Bob Arnhold, then a teacher in the school’s adaptive physical activity program, had started inviting local high school students with developmental disabilities to campus as part of an informal program he set up with his students around 2014. The high school students followed different members of the staff, interacted with the college students and participated in adapted physical activities with the students of Arnhold.
Eventually, it led to Rock Life.
Arnhold, who retired in 2019, said the program started at no cost to Slippery Rock. He quickly became popular among the students of Slippery Rock who participated as life coaches and mentors as well as among the students who signed up for Rock Life.
“It was amazing the stories you heard about the (Rock Life) students coming home on Thanksgiving after a few months here and the changes their families saw,” Arnhold said.
Corrado Bello, who recently graduated with a Masters in Adapted Physical Activity, said mentoring Rock Life students was a rewarding experience. He partnered with the students to make sure they participated in the fitness program. They would go to the gym together and participate in intramural sports.
“The growth you see in 10 weeks is pretty amazing,” Bello said. “I was working with a freshman in the first semester. It was the first time she had been away from home. At first she was very shy and uncommunicative. But I would ask a lot of questions. … In the end, we developed a real friendship.
Bello said he received text messages of congratulations on graduating from Rock Life students.
“These are children who would normally be disenfranchised, and now they are friends,” he said.
Equally important, he said, they gave him new perspectives on working with people with disabilities.
‘I can do it’
While most Rock Life students take classes but don’t focus on degrees, Arnhold said, one student stands out as an example of how such programs can open surprising doors.
“We had a student who worked in a library as an archivist. He was non-verbal and on the autism spectrum, but he went on to earn a computer science degree. It took him a while, but he did it, ”Arnhold said.
Ammons said she struggled with her classes, but hopes to get an A in hospitality and management, the only course she took to credit last semester.
This spring, in addition to classwork, she will tackle a work yet to be determined – one of the requirements for Rock Life attendees.
It may well be related to the kind of work she did at her family’s restaurants in Greensburg or at Growing Together Aquaponics Inc.
Arnhold helped start Growing Together at the North Country Brewery Cannery right next to the Slippery Rock campus. The association includes two 300 gallon aquariums with tilapia. Fish wastes are converted into nitrates. The plants clean it and it is reinjected into aquariums. The operation, designed to provide employment and training opportunities for Rock Life students, already packs and sells products to three restaurants.
Ammons said his ultimate goal is to finish school in 2023 and be actively involved in his family’s affairs, perhaps one day helping his brother, David, run restaurants.
“Now I know if I’m focused on something,” she said, “I can do it. “
Deb Erdley is a writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .