Dismissing the Dis in Disability

by May 11, 2020Nonprofits, South Brunswick

Brunswick Community College’s Brunswick Interagency Program helps differently abled students develop their skills and gain employment within the community.

The joy of living! We all express it in different ways. As a volunteer at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, Allyson Borden spontaneously breaks into song at her cafeteria job. Katie Juda beams when she dreams of working with penguins in a zoo someday. Jill Meyer is a Special Olympics bowling and bocce champion who proudly displays her golden hardware. Rachael Teeples’ smile gives away how freeing it is to live independently and have a good-paying job. And you can’t wipe the smile off Essilevy Ivelisse Gandia-Colón’s face after she passed her Catholic Confirmation class studies. When you’re happy and you know it, such things happen!

Society has labeled all of these wonderful people as “intellectually or developmentally disabled,” but in truth there is no “dis” in their abilities and they are exceptional in the things they choose to do.

As Meyer’s mother, Tracey, says, “Jill is differently abled.” And Juda’s father, Wes, attests that she and her peers are capable, determined and need all the things everybody else does, including love, understanding, patience and good-paying or volunteer work to give their lives purpose. To that end, both of them are enrolled in Brunswick Community College’s Brunswick Interagency Program.

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Thanks to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other national and state laws, every school-aged child in the United States who needs special education receives an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Parents, educators and people who are familiar with the children, tailor the plans for them before they begin their schooling. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, along with Brunswick County Schools, also provides an Exceptional Children Program locally. It’s designed to assure that students with disabilities develop mentally, physically, emotionally and vocationally starting with kindergarten and going through grade 12.

For education after high school, for the last 35 years Brunswick Community College in Bolivia has been a model for North Carolina in innovative continuing education for the county’s Special Education students. The college offers its Brunswick Interagency Program (BIP), enabling post-high school adults to take classes in language arts, math, social studies, community living and vocational education at no cost. Students have opportunities throughout the year to enhance their daily living and social skills.

A component of BIP is Supported Employment Services, a collaboration with the N.C. Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Trillium Health Resources. The program provides students with employment on custodial, cafeteria and grounds crews on the main campus. Students can also learn about horticulture in the campus greenhouse through an elective course known as Brunswick Blooms.

There are 131 students in BIP, supported by a dozen instructors, three teaching assistants, two work crew supervisors and a job coach, says Program Director LeAnn Cecil. The students range in age from 17 to 74, as the college has a program designed specifically for senior citizens.

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“Our primary objective is to support our students in gaining the daily living, academic and social skills they need to enhance their independence,” Cecil says.

She explains that it is a safe environment to try new things while the students are deciding their areas of interest. The goal for many of the students, she says, is employment within the community, and BIP helps them develop their skills to achieve their objective.

“We train the best employees in the world,” Cecil says. “Our students are happy to come to work, they obey the rules, they are energetic and are very dependable.” She acknowledges there are some who prefer not to go into the workforce and choose to remain as students well into their senior years, which is perfectly fine.

In the greenhouse, Instructor Amy Bodnarik explains that the elective course has 60 diverse students this semester. It not only helps students learn to categorize, raise and sustain the health of the plant life, but also instructs them on the business end of horticulture. They are currently developing plans to partner with local businesses on a project to sell the plants by providing them free samples. They’ll use marketing techniques to inform the businesses’ customers they can purchase plants, similar to the samples, directly from Brunswick Blooms. The objective is to increase sales of the greenhouse products to fund the existence and expansion of the structure itself and raise awareness for the BIP.

Teeples will be instrumental in that program. Bodnarik holds her up as a stellar example of the success of the county’s educational system. She excelled in her IEP, graduated from high school and BIP, was a model athlete in Special Olympics and has been a paid member of the college staff as an assistant in the greenhouse for 20 years. Rachael says she watches over the teams of students who create the myriad of plants the college sells in the community. But even more than a paying job, Rachael says, “This is therapy for me,” and her work provides a way to reduce the stresses in her life. She isn’t shy in saying it is also “great to be paid.” Meyer wants to volunteer or receive pay for tending to horses on a farm in the future. Juda aspires to a paying job in a zoo or aquarium, working with penguins.

An important enhancement to the college’s BIP Supported Employment Services program starts this fall. Named Project SEARCH, it will provide selected high school seniors ages 17 to 21 with internships in local businesses, with hopes of obtaining paid employment. The objective is to teach key job skills to students via internships and to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities because they will have skill sets which will make them valuable assets to the businesses. It’s a combination of educational courses, job skills activities and the internship job itself.

Project SEARCH is a partnership among Novant Health, Brunswick County Schools, North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and Brunswick Community College. The first community organization to bring interns aboard will be Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center.

Wes Juda is a member of the BIP Advisory Board. He learned about Project SEARCH, which has been a success at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center since 1996, at a meeting of the North Carolina Council for Developmental Disabilities in Raleigh. He brought the concept back to the BIP Board and the county school system and received buy-in to develop it in Brunswick County. The partners then chose him as the part-time project manager.

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“In the last year of the students’ high school time, they will transition to become Project SEARCH participants,” Wes Juda says. “They’ll go through three non-paid internships at the host site. Once their internship year is complete, they’ll receive class credit for their work and receive a job coach through BIP. The job coach’s role will be to assist them in finding a job as well as making sure they are equipped to do so, and also advising the employer on working with people with disabilities.”

President of Brunswick Medical Center Shelbourn Stevens says, “At Novant Health, we recognize that every person is different, each shaped by unique life experiences, and this helps us better understand each other and our patients. We’re looking forward to hosting the interns and providing a variety of work experiences over their time here.”

Stevens says the students will be an important asset to the medical center in escorting visitors to the various departments and patients’ rooms. The students will help in a number of roles, including assisting in the cafeteria and re-stocking supplies. He noted Novant Health’s primary contributions will be in providing staff support to establish the program, working with the students on-site and classroom space. “We are hopeful we can have an impact on the lives of the students and help them meet their full potential,” he says.

The medical center already provides volunteer opportunities in its commitment to diversity.
Allyson Borden has been a volunteer in the food services department going on two years, a couple hours a day, twice a week. She greets guests and team members in the cafeteria, straightens stock and makes sure the staff knows if items need stocking. “I put on my gloves and hair net and serve the chicken tenders and potato wedges. I love to greet people. It’s fun,” says Borden, who with a wonderful smile declares herself jokingly as having “class and personality.” Volunteer Coordinator Christie Delbridge says, “Allyson’s outgoing personality makes her easy for people to talk to, and she has a great sense of humor.”

“And I like to sing, too,” Borden says. Her favorite song is “The Time of My Life.”

“When the doors to the cafeteria are closed between serving hours, you can hear her,” Delbridge says with a smile, and to the glee of Borden, who exclaims, “I am a movie star!”

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Photography by Ed Beckley

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