by Adrianne Murchison
Marti Mejias was concerned about the road head when she enrolled her son, Justin, in the University of Georgia’s Destination Dawgs inclusive post-secondary education program. Even so, she knew the road behind had limited options for him.
Justin, 26, has autism and dyspraxia speech impairment. Before UGA, he felt his long-held desire to help others was not being met by working in a store stocking goods.
“I was terrified for him going to UGA,” said Mejias, who lives in Commerce. “But, it’s been a blessing. Out of high school, we placed him in a few different jobs and nothing worked out.”
Justin returned home from one of those jobs discouraged and said, “Mom, I just don’t want to do this for the rest of the my life.”
"I’m studying special education,” said Justin.
The five-semester Destination Dawgs program allows students to audit classes of interest with typical students and learn life skills that help them budget and manage money, live on their own and more. Students graduate from the program with a UGA certificate in College and Career Readiness from the university’s Center on Continuing Education.
“We do person-centered planning,” said Anna Lawrence, program coordinator. “We sit down once a semester and have a conversation with the student, parents, some siblings, and peer mentors to an extent. We think about where they are now, where do they want to be in five years, and what are the action items to take place.”
Students have academic peer mentors. Justin and his peer mentor, Hannah Kim, became fast pals.
“We bonded in our interest in music,” said Kim. “Outside of class we came up with songs that he could pair with a class activity, like the movement of egg shakers to the beat that he was playing on the guitar.
“At the end of the session he had led a lot of the activity. He had really stepped into his own role. I could tell his confidence had really blossomed.”
Mejias agrees, Justin’s increased confidence is apparent. “He was bullied in high school,” she explained. “He would walk around with his shoulders closed and crunched down. Now his shoulders are set back and he looks straight up and ahead.”
Last semester, Prof. Kari Turner taught a Destination Dawgs student for the first time in her Companion Animal Care class of 100 students ranging from freshman to senior year. Turner teaches students about dogs, cats, hamster and gerbils; and makes room for more on “show and tell” days. The class can be intimidating for a typical undergraduate, yet Katie, though quiet at first, settled in perfectly.
“You could tell she was excited,” said Turner. “As the class went on she started engaging more and started telling stories.
“When we had hamsters, her eyes lit up and she raised her hand. I said, ‘They bite you’ and she said [enthusiastically], ‘Yes, yes!’”
On show and tell day, students were allowed to bring in an assortment of pets including a pig that ran around the classroom, and a horse that was stationed outside. Katie brought in her Lhasa Apso.
When Katie’s turn came to present her dog, she fled to the front of the class, Turner said. “She showed pictures and talked about the breed and history of it. I was so proud of her to stand up in front of 99 students and tell them about her animal. The other students responded so well and asked all kinds of good questions.”
The Destination Dawgs program includes worked-based experiential learning. Turner’s Animal Companion Care class requires volunteer work at a shelter or rescue facility. Katie volunteers at the therapeutic riding facility that she regularly attends.
And Justin is fulfilling his dream to help others. He recently completed CPR training. Next summer he will work part-time with Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services as a one-on-one buddy in the camp program.
He has spent the last several summers at Extra Special People weeklong camps in Watkinsville and voluntarily assisted counselors.
“He is so patient,” she said. “He noticed that several campers were nonverbal and a few counselors knew sign language. He wants to learn to sign [next semester] to communicate with non-verbal campers.”
Justin is driven by his own awareness of what it’s like to struggle with a disability and be misunderstood by other people, his mother said.
“Destination Dawgs has made it possible to get the training that he needed,” Mejias said. “Before we had no way before to get through to organizations to get a job. Now his future has so many possibilities.”