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.”
by Adrianne Murchison
College life for Darien Todd is everything a parent hopes it would be. He has lived on campus, made friends and succeeded in his studies. Indeed, the outgoing 22-year-old Ellenwood resident describes Kennesaw State University’s Academy for Inclusive Learning and Growth as a life-changing experience. Two-year programs are offered to students with developmental disabilities who can audit two classes per week at the university.
“I love it,” said Darien, who lives on campus during the semester. “I describe it like any university where you’re just getting a college experience and doing the work. And for me, being able to go to college knowing I have a disability is great.”
Kennesaw State was the first university to offer post-secondary education in Georgia when it started in 2009. In addition to taking classes with typical undergraduates, students attend career planning and life-skills courses in the academy’s Academic, Social, Career, Enrichment program.
Darien is enrolled in the Advanced Leadership and Career Development program, which is offered after completion of the introductory course. It’s designed to expand on students social and leadership abilities.
Darien’s parents have witness independence emerge in him. “I think the program is great,” said his father, Derrick Todd. “I’ve seen a lot of growth in him, and being able to make decisions on his own with some support from the school.”
Thirty-two peer mentors are matched with Academy students to attend classes and internship job sites. The ultimate goal is to instill students with the confidence and skills to pursue any goals that they set their mind to, and to be able to advocate for themselves.
“Our hope is you would go to the middle of the campus and ask someone about the program and they say, ‘What program?’” said Neil Duchac, executive director of the Academy.
In the past, the Academy has organized trips to other parts of the U.S. In 2015, Darien, an Ellenwood resident, was one of a group Academy students to travel to Dubai to experience its culture.
He is one of 15 students graduating form the Academy next spring. Darien reflected on his time in Kennesaw’s inclusive program with GAIPSEC.
What are some of classes you’ve taken?
I’ve taken a global course where the teacher talks about what’s in the news and what’s going on around the world. Sometimes we talk about politics. I’ve taken classes in acting. That was one of my favorites. We would do a lot of improv. I took music in society and we talked about opera singers and a family of instruments.
What kind of internships have you worked?
I worked at the KSU market. It was a little shopping center where students go to get snacks on the way to class. I stocked, checked expiration, cleaned and organized.
I worked in the diversity and inclusion office. It was one of my favorite internships because I got an award. I helped them plan and put on an art show. [Separately], I helped at Zuckermans [Museum of Art] on campus.
I worked in a service that helps students that are in need of food and shelter. I would take calls and transfer to the right person and help in the pantry.
Why has this been so special for you?
To experience something that I didn’t think I would. I have had my disability for a long time – dyslexia – so I’ve learned how to live with it. It’s something that I love about myself.
Reading is easier for me now.
Students get two mentors, one for each [audited] class. They’ve made it really easy to do the homework and catch up on class.
You were already an outgoing young man before attending the academy, what impact has it had on your outlook?
If I didn’t have this opportunity, I would be fine because I was already kind of social, but being there escalated it more. I always had an open mind but this made my mind way more open. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know, and it helped me to learn what I want to do while I’m in college and when I get out of college.
What was it like to travel to Dubai?
It was a breathtaking experience just to visit somewhere else and their culture. We visited different sports facilities, their college campus. We talked about the academy and what we do in our classes. It was really good.
What would you like people to know about Academy students?
It’s not easy growing up with a disability but it’s not impossible. We will work hard at anything we choose to do. We are human just like anyone else. “Disability” is just a word. It doesn’t mean we can’t succeed.
I have a really great support system in my parents and family. Parents-wise, I know it’s got to be scary. It’s normal but don’t be too scared about whether he or she will succeed past the limitations that you think he might have, that would limit us to [a certain] type of work we can do.
I think this experience helped me to balance money and make adult decisions that I’m going to have to make when I get out of college. Living on campus gave me that independence and made me the man that I am today.