How Judson University is helping students rise above disabilities

Suburban Education Lab is an occasional series focusing on innovative programs at suburban schools, colleges and universities tackling common, universal problems students face using unique methods.

Going to college is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for students with intellectual disabilities, who age out of special education programs at public schools and community transitional services.

For most of these students, their educational careers stop after high school, as there aren't many universities or colleges offering programs to accommodate their unique needs and acclimating to a collegiate environment can be challenging, educators say.

“It's a big change going to college,” said Kathy Lambert, director of the new Road to Independent Living, Spiritual Formation and Employment, or RISE, program at Judson University in Elgin.

Twelve students with intellectual disabilities started classes in August at the Christian liberal arts university. The two-year, postsecondary certificate program provides students 18 to 25 years old an opportunity to experience residential college life in a Christian community and develop independent living and work skills.

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. Judson's program is modeled after Bethel's.

“There is not another faith-based institution in Illinois that offers a live-on-campus program,” Lambert said.

Judson's program is the brainchild of alumnae Gayle Gianopulos of Barrington Hills and Nancy Binger of Union, mothers of children with Down syndrome.

Through RISE, students have the opportunity to choose from among six subject areas of concentration - business and entrepreneurship, Christian ministries, creative arts, education, health and wellness, and math and technology. They start off the first semester in seven self-contained classes teaching professional skills, person-centered planning, independent living skills, consumer math and money management, current events, personal fitness and wellness, and daily living with Christian values.

In a recent person-centered planning class, students talked about feeling overwhelmed or shy and diagramed or drew images representing what is important in their lives. They are taught personal responsibility. Arriving late to class resulted in one student having to perform 25 push-ups, for which he received high-fives and cheers from classmates. The atmosphere is more supportive than competitive.

  Garrett Perkins of St. Charles addresses his classmates in Judson University's new RISE program for students with intellectual disabilities. Brian Hill/

“I'm making friends,” said Garrett Perkins, 21, of St. Charles, who joined the program along with his friend Daniel Tiltges, 21, also from St. Charles. “It's our home now.”

“I'm learning more about myself,” added Tiltges. “I'm learning to be more independent.”

Students attend chapel three times a week, eat in the cafeteria with other students, go to basketball games, participate in the theater program and music ensembles, and live in shared dorm rooms. Program participants are paired with traditional students, who mentor them in the areas of housing, job, study and volunteer social skills.

“The program has been a real blessing to me,” said Emily Rogers, 24, of Elgin. “I had gone to a community college that didn't work out for me so well. Here, they have a lot of support for me. It's been an adjustment, but I'm meeting more new people that have been helpful.”

Rogers is a higher-functioning student whose interests include photography, graphic design and caring for pets. She also works providing child care at the Centre of Elgin recreational facility and hopes to go into teaching after graduating from Judson.

“I'm excited about moving forward with my life,” Rogers said.

In semesters two, three and four, RISE students get to audit a traditional classroom within their chosen concentration and in the future could earn college credit. They also are placed in on-campus internships based on their strengths and interests.

So far, three students have been assigned to work in the university president's office, fitness center and financial aid office, while four others will help manage sports teams on campus during home games. In the second year, students will be placed in off-campus internships with local businesses, such as manufacturing companies, restaurants, retail stores and banks.

  Program director Kathy Lambert works with her students in Judson University's new RISE two-year certificate program for students 18 to 25 years old with intellectual disabilities. RISE stands for Road to Independent Living, Spiritual Formation and Employment. The first 12 RISE students began classes in August. Brian Hill/

“We are looking for business partners,” Lambert said. “Businesses won't have to pay anything.”

The annual tuition, fees and board cost for full-time Judson students is $39,274, though many students pay less through various scholarship and aid programs.

Lambert said RISE students have a lot to offer the Judson community and their presence on campus has been spiritually uplifting to employees and students alike.

“There's a refreshing honesty, simplicity about these students that kind of almost puts things into perspective for most people,” Lambert said. “It's changing people's perspectives of people that have disabilities.”

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Judson U. alumnae behind new program for students with disabilities

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