Next Steps at Vanderbilt program prepares young adults for the road ahead
Jeanne Gavigan embarked on her first bike ride at the age of 22. Like any beginner, she fell a few times before getting the hang of it, but unlike a novice, she already had the ambitious goal of a 20-mile race. A mere three weeks later, her mission was accomplished as she and Vanderbilt medical student Jessi Solomon crossed the finish line on a tandem bike at the 12th Annual Audi Best Buddies Challenge in Hyannis Port, Mass.
“I won! I rode 20 miles!” Jeanne told Solomon at the completion of the race.
As a young adult with Down syndrome, Jeanne has tackled many obstacles, including this bike ride, proving an intellectual disability doesn’t define a person.
Her cycling companion Solomon says her race with Jeanne was one of her most memorable life experiences.
“We flew down the hills of Cape Cod singing songs from “Aladdin” at the top of our lungs because [Jeanne] loves Disney movies,” Solomon said. “We are so much alike; Jeanne is so enthusiastic and acts the way I want to act all the time.”
Solomon’s passion for individuals with special needs ignited as an undergraduate student in the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, where she joined the Best Buddies chapter, an organization that fosters friendships among Vanderbilt students and individuals with intellectual disabilities. Now in her second year of medical school, Solomon plans to use her training to specialize in the care of adults with disabilities.
Jeanne is a student in the Next Steps at Vanderbilt program, a two-year certification program for students with intellectual disabilities, providing individualized programs of study in the areas of education, social skills and vocational training.
Upon completion of the Next Steps program, the longtime goal has been for every graduate to be in paid employment positions or volunteering their time in places they want to be. Jeanne’s goal is to work at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, and with the help of Next Steps, she is well on her way.
“With clear and high expectations, we all rise,” said Tammy Day, M.Ed., Next Steps program director. “Our students have very specific goals, and they’re rising to them.”
Experiencing College Life
Recognizing a deficit in opportunities for this population, coupled with the desire many of these high school graduates have for higher education, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) created Next Steps at Vanderbilt, one of only two college programs in Tennessee for adults with disabilities.
“Most people don’t stop to think about what happens to an individual with a disability when they leave high school,” Day said. “Parents really grapple with what’s going to happen next.”
Twelve students enrolled in the four-semester program, attending classes, spending time with their peer mentors, eating in the cafeteria and simply experiencing college life. They complete four classes each semester, including one undergraduate-level class with other Vanderbilt students. To date, 25 Vanderbilt faculty members have welcomed Next Steps students into their classrooms, with courses ranging from theatre to psychology, education to physics.
A popular opportunity is the science lab, a partnership between the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Vanderbilt Student Volunteers for Science (VSVS), a service organization comprised of undergraduate, graduate and medical students who teach science lessons to middle school students.
“[Expanding VSVS to] include people with disabilities reminds us that teaching and learning take many different forms,” said Rich Helms, Ph.D., lecturer in Physics and lab coordinator. “Working with the Next Steps group has made me a better teacher, even when working with traditional students.”
Sharon Shields, Ph.D., professor of the Practice of Human and Organizational Development and Dean of Professional Education, says participation with the Next Steps program has been a highlight of her 35-year teaching career.
“I am just so taken with these students and what they add to our classes,” Shields said. “They are eager to learn, their assignments are in on time, they work diligently, they are attentive, they attend each class and they understand the gift that is their education.”
Shields teaches a course on health service delivery to diverse populations and says the Next Steps students contribute in meaningful ways and offer perspectives she and the traditional students otherwise would not have in the class.
One of these experiences occurred when her class worked with Mending Hearts, a Nashville-based transitional housing initiative for women who have been released from prison or are suffering from addiction and are homeless. A recovering woman in the program shared her story of addiction, a battle that ultimately led to losing custody of her children. Jeanne Gavigan was in this class and spoke up to comfort the woman, telling her about her own mother’s death a few years earlier. Jeanne told her she had never forgotten her mother, and that her children had not forgotten her, either.
“Here is [Jeanne] who can share so freely and be so direct and compassionate and caring,” Shields said. “What if that Next Steps student had not been sitting in my class? That would have never happened on that day.
“The Next Steps students have changed the climate and culture of our college. We are learning as much, if not more, from them as they are from us.”
Support for the creation of the program was provided by gifts from Linda Brooks, her family, and her LDB Foundation. Key funding also came from the Louise Bullard Wallace Foundation and a grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Brooks, a member of the VKC Leadership Council, has worked for years for the creation of postsecondary opportunities for young adults with disabilities in Tennessee.
“As more and more people find out about the program, the movement will grow bigger and stronger,” Brooks said. “More people will want to join, and before you know it, there will be programs all over the state. As Vanderbilt is successful, other colleges and universities will want to step on board and develop programs of their own.”
During Next Steps, students build their resume through a variety of internships within area businesses and on Vanderbilt’s campus in the libraries and bookstore.
Jeanne’s dad, William Gavigan, M.D., a Nashville orthopaedic surgeon, says his daughter loves musical theatre and is currently in her “dream job” volunteering in the administrative office at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC). In addition to her job at TPAC, she spent time working with the Kennedy Center’s recent SENSE Theatre production, a theatrical intervention program for children with autism spectrum disorders.
“You put her on a stage and she does great,” Gavigan said, noting she got this interest and ability from her late mother.
Gavigan says the Next Steps program has made a huge impact on Jeanne, stating that before this program, she was more inflexible and unable to deviate from routines. Next Steps has taught her how to be more adaptive, he says.
“She has transcended from a person who could do hardly anything because she was so stubborn,” he said laughingly, “to becoming a young woman who can do all kinds of things.
“If there weren’t a Next Steps program, most kids with disabilities would have nothing after high school. There’s nothing really out there for them, and it’s a universal problem.”
Gavigan says his 22-year journey with Jeanne has been full of closed doors, and he hopes communities will become more open to people with disabilities.
“Give them a chance,” he said. “There is more under the surface, more there than you might think.”
Employment outcomes for people with disabilities are low, with the unemployment rate double that of people without disabilities, according to the United States Department of Labor. Erik Carter, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education and Kennedy Center member, wants to determine what can be done to set students with disabilities on a different trajectory.
“We send young people to school for years, and then we get a glimpse of what kinds of experiences they have at the end of that schooling when the bus doesn’t show up anymore, and it’s a pretty disappointing picture,” Carter said. “Many adults with disabilities stay home after high school and graduate to the couch, not because they have aspirations for that but because they don’t have opportunities.”
Carter’s research and teaching focuses on evidence-based strategies for promoting valued roles in school, work and community settings for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“We can’t start thinking about transitions to college or careers the day after high school,” he said. “How do we begin to change their life course much earlier? What supports need to be in place?”
One of the ways Carter is tackling these questions is by launching a series of Community Conversations, a gathering of business and community leaders, educators and parents whose goal is to seek solutions and identify their role in helping individuals with disabilities gain employment.
“If we tap into the resources we already have, we can change outcomes in radical ways,” Carter said. “If we are going to change employment outcomes, we have to engage more than the service systems. Business leaders and employee networks know more about what their industry needs than anyone.”
The Road Ahead
The first class of six Next Steps students graduated in December 2011, leaving with tools to live more independent lives.
One such tool is a one-page profile developed with each student that, unlike a traditional resume, details more humanistic aspects about a person.
The profile exemplifies person-centered planning, the recommended practice for life planning, says Carol Rabideau, Licensed Clinical Social Worker for the Kennedy Center and certified person-centered thinking trainer for the state of Tennessee.
“The point [of person-centered planning] is that we’re getting information from the person instead of us trying to decide what experiences they should have,” Rabideau said.
“It’s impressive to see the things important to [the Next Steps students] about working,” noting examples such as being on time, doing a good job, staying busy and being in a social environment.
Additionally, the profile describes the kind of support an employer can provide to help a person be successful in a job. However, it is not problem-focused, but rather demonstrates what a person with disabilities can do, she said.
It’s these special talents and gifts that Jessi Solomon has found by befriending Jeanne and others with intellectual disabilities.
“Everyone is different; there is no ‘we’ and ‘they,’” Solomon said. “Some people with disabilities can read, some can do math, some can talk in front of a big audience, some can play the saxophone.
“Get to know people’s individual strengths and discover how you can support them,” she encouraged.
Jessi Solomon received the Canby Robinson Scholarship, a full-tuition scholarship to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.