Judson U. alumnae behind new program for students with disabilities

Judson University alumnae Gayle Gianopulos and Nancy Binger never imagined that their personal challenges being mothers of children with Down syndrome would inspire a unique program for college students with intellectual disabilities at their alma mater.

The Elgin Christian liberal arts university next year is launching the RISE program, or the Road to Independent Living, Spiritual Formation and Employment. The two-year, postsecondary certificate program will provide students with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to experience residential college life in a Christian community and develop independent living and work skills.

The first group of 12 students will begin August 2017. Judson is the first Christian university in the Chicago area to have such a program, officials said.

Gianopulos, of Barrington Hills, said she wanted her two daughters with Down syndrome - Jessica, 13, and Cassidy, 9 - to have an inclusive collegiate experience just like her other two daughters born without intellectual challenges.

Jessica now attends Barrington Middle School Prairie Campus while Cassidy goes to Countryside Elementary, also in Barrington Unit District 220, where they receive specialized support services integrated into regular classrooms. Ultimately, both would attend Barrington High School.

“It dawned on me that their life would stop after high school,” Gianopulos said. “They both love school and they both love church.”

After some research, Gianopulos found few Christian colleges nationwide offer residential programs for students with intellectual disabilities - Shepherds College in Union Grove, Wisconsin, and Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, are among the few that do.

“If secular colleges are doing a program similar to this, why can't a Christian college do it?” Gianopulos said. “That is when I thought it was time to make the pitch.”

Gianopulos pitched the concept to Binger, Judson's vice president of enrollment and strategic planning, whose 10-month-old son, Cody, also has Down syndrome.

  Judson University alumna Nancy Binger of Union holds her 10-month-old son, Cody. Brian Hill/

Binger, of Union, said it was hard when she first found out her son had Down syndrome. “I struggled with that. By the end of my pregnancy, I felt ready to take on the challenge,” she said.

It also made her more receptive to Gianopulos' idea.

“I had this stirring within me before Cody was even born,” Binger said. “I wanted something bigger with my life. I really feel that Judson is a perfect place for a program like this, and I think it will help the community and is the program that will separate us from all the Christian schools out there.”

After months of research and planning, the university's administration and trustees gave RISE their blessing.

Students in the program will be taught life skills, consumer mathematics, Bible and theology, physical education, social skills, basic reading and writing, and business skills. They will participate in on-campus internships during the first year and off-campus internships with local businesses the second year.

Students also will attend chapel three times a week, eat in the cafeteria with other students, attend basketball games, participate in the theater program and music ensembles, and live in shared dorm rooms.

  Mothers of children with Down syndrome, Nancy Binger of Union, right, and Gayle Gianopulos of Barrington Hills, left, inspired their alma mater, Judson University in Elgin, to start an inclusive collegiate program for students with intellectual disabilities. Brian Hill/

“Our goal is to teach them independent living skills,” Binger said.

Program participants will be paired with traditional students who will mentor them in the areas of housing, job, study and volunteer social skills.

Existing faculty members will be trained on the specific disabilities they will encounter so they understand how to communicate with and motivate students, and adjunct faculty will be hired where necessary, said Kathy Lambert, RISE program director.

Officials expect to draw students from Judson's alumni families and a 60-mile radius, including Willow Creek Community Church's Special Friends program in South Barrington.

  Judson University alumnae Gayle Gianopulos and Nancy Binger, both mothers of children with Down syndrome, have inspired a unique inclusive program for college students with intellectual disabilities at their alma mater. Brian Hill/

“I am so deeply moved and humbled,” Gianopulos said about seeing her idea come to fruition.

The application deadline for the program is Jan. 31. Applicants must be 18 to 25 years old with an intellectual disability and possess practical reading and writing skills and a high school diploma or equivalent.

Applications for student mentors will be accepted in November for next school year.

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