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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Disabled students continuing at NCC

Danielle Curtis

When Neil and Lori Rogers’ son Craig was getting ready to graduate from Nashua High School South last year, they weren’t eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters or preparing to move him out on his own.

Instead, they were worried their son would not have those experiences. ...

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When Neil and Lori Rogers’ son Craig was getting ready to graduate from Nashua High School South last year, they weren’t eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters or preparing to move him out on his own.

Instead, they were worried their son would not have those experiences.

Craig Rogers, 22, who is autistic, had received special education services from the high school for years. He loved school and wanted it to continue, but finding educational services for students older than 21 is not an easy task.

“We were kind of freaking out about what we were going to do next,” Lori Rogers said. “We didn’t want him to be in the older adult world; we wanted him to be with people in his peer group, to still be in a structured academic environment, to thrive.”

It was that wish for their son that led the couple to approach Brian Young at The Nashua Center, a local organization that provides services to people of all ages with disabilities, and Nashua Community College President Lucille Jordan.

Together with both organizations, the Rogerses helped create the LIFE-OP program at the community college.

LIFE-OP – Learning Independence through Fundamental Education and Opportunities – is a post-secondary education program for students with developmental disabilities. The program provides academic opportunities for students through the community college, as well as job experience and training, and a chance to be part of campus life.

Three students are already enrolled in the program, including Craig Rogers, and now, about a year after the program began, LIFE-OP is looking to grow and enroll up to eight students.

“The college, the staff and students, have just been so accepting and so welcoming of us,” said program coordinator Nora Driscoll. “I love it when I walk into the cafeteria and I can’t find my students. They fit in.”

Driscoll said inclusion into campus life is one of the most important aspects of the program for the students involved. LIFE-OP is meant to help students transition from high school into their adult lives and provide the students with the skills they’ll need to be more independent and maintain a job.

While most of the students will continue to need services throughout their adult lives, having an educational option after high school can boost their confidence as adults, she said.

What the program provides for the students involved, however, varies as much as the students themselves.

All three of the students currently enrolled – Rogers, Rick Loring, 23, and Jon Connell, 22 – all have some form of autism and have a range of verbal communication skills. Students’ lessons and community outings are based on their interests.

On Tuesday morning, Connell was taking a break after working in the community college weight room, running around the track as he likes to do whenever possible.

He raced around and around the track dozens of times, stopping only to challenge anyone standing nearby to a race, calling, “ready, set, go!”

Rogers was working in the LIFE-OP classroom, learning about money and how to use it at a store. Driscoll said this kind of life skills training is important to all of the students in the program, and their community outings reinforce the skills they learn in class.

Rogers, for example, came to the program unsure of how to use a debit card. Now, after mastering that, his teachers work with him to develop grocery lists and go shopping. All three students also get work experience at the college, cleaning in the cafeteria and other areas.

Loring was doing just that Tuesday afternoon, going from table to table and clearing any trash left behind, spraying and wiping down tables, and restocking bags of chips near the lunch room cash register.

Driscoll said the students learn important skills through this experience and other part-time work experience out in the community. While the academic piece of the program is important, it is the experience in the working world that will help students transition out of school.

For Lori Rogers, seeing her son able to get that experience, while spending time with students his age, has been the biggest benefit of LIFE-OP.

“There are students at NCC that remember him from high school and come up and say hello,” she said. “That wouldn’t happen as often if you were out in the real world. That is kind of cool for us, that he is around kids that are his age.”

Rogers said she’s been amazed to see how quickly students and staff at the college have embraced the program, and that she’s hoping her son can have even more interaction with typical students.

“He doesn’t know how to socialize, that doesn’t come naturally to him, so the more exposure he has to adults his age, the more opportunity he has to have a conversation, answer a question, and learn,” she said. “He’s really exploring new opportunities, having a functional day every day, doing things, working and making an impact.”

Driscoll said she’d also like to see the LIFE-OP program better collaborate with other programs at the community college.

Students in the college’s teacher education club and other groups have already volunteered to work with the LIFE-OP students, and as staff are learning more about the program, they have begun offering their expertise.

And Driscoll said she’s confident the program will continue to grow in the years to come, as a way to help students transition from their high school years to other programs for adults with developmental disabilities.

She is already working with four more students who may be interested in joining the NCC program, and said she envisions similar programs forming at the state’s other community colleges some day.

For now, however, she’s content to take it slow and help improve the lives of those students already involved.

“It really expands their worlds,” she said.

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com. Also,
follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).