PASSAGE USA Makes College Possible for the Intellectually Disabled

Posted on March 24, 2017
Joy Washington

Benjamin Pelham, who is taking courses at South through PASSAGE USA, works part-time in the Registrar’s Office.  data-lightbox='featured'
Benjamin Pelham, who is taking courses at South through PASSAGE USA, works part-time in the Registrar’s Office. Bottom photo: Pelham waits for the JagTran with friend and peer mentor Josh Overstreet, a junior secondary education major.

Benjamin Pelham of Mobile wanted to go to college after high school like all of his friends, but for a while, he couldn’t. Pelham has an intellectual disability, and locally, college wasn’t an option for him. Until now. 

A program called “PASSAGE USA” (which stands for Preparing All Students Socially and Academically for Gainful Employment) started this spring semester in the University of South Alabama’s College of Education and Pelham is the first student to be accepted. The program is for students ages 19-25 who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability. An IQ of 70 and below can indicate this type of disability.

“College is possible, and it’s our philosophy that there are no limits for Benjamin to learn,” said Dr. Abigail Baxter, professor of education at USA. “We have created a two-year certificate program to provide a supportive academic environment along with internship and career opportunities. This program will strengthen the student’s independent living and social skills.” 

Pelham, age 22, who completed four years of high school at McGill-Toolen, has a South student identification card, and he is riding the JagTran. He’s taking computer and career skills courses, along with working several jobs.

“I check my email and send text messages,” Pelham said. “And I am working three jobs. I want to be a manager. I ride the JagTran to my job on campus in the Registrar’s Office. I like being a Jaguar.”

Kelly Osterbind, USA registrar and Karen Goodwin, registrar’s officer and Pelham’s supervisor, said he has a great work ethic.

“Benjamin works in our office two hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays," Goodwin noted. “He makes sure the shred bins are emptied and he keeps the copy room stocked with paper. He alphabetizes and files the student-athlete folders. These are tasks any student assistant would do in our office.”

Bevley Green, director of South’s Career Services Center, teaches the career planning course that Pelham takes with other students. She is teaching them to search for employment, build professional skills and the characteristics he and the traditional students will need to work.

“Benjamin works well with his peers in our group exercises and shows a definite eagerness to be a manager in a restaurant setting,” Green explained. “Like all students, he is devoted to figuring out his life and career plans.”

Green said there’s a plan to have an employment coordinator on staff who will work with students in the program and provide them with one-on-one coaching as well as identifying employment opportunities that will be mutually beneficial for the students and the employing businesses and organizations.

Dr. Dennis Campbell, associate professor of education at USA, and the father of a daughter with an intellectual disability, said they are helping students decide their career plans and secure business partners on campus and in the community for the program.

“We work with Benjamin on his personal and career goals,” Campbell noted. “We have discussed where he might want to live and work. This is a structured program, and we are dependent on the campus and the Mobile community to make this work for Benjamin and future PASSAGE USA students.”

Alexandra Chanto-Wetter is the assistant director of the program. She works with Baxter and Campbell to make sure all the goals of the program are implemented. A native of Costa Rica, Chanto-Wetter has had a passion for working with students who have mental and physical challenges since she was a teenager. She left the Mobile County Public School System as a special education teacher to join the PASSAGE USA team.

“I am here to help make this program a success,” she said. “Benjamin is learning and growing in knowledge every day. The program will be tailored for each individual student.”

South Alabama student Joshua Overstreet, a junior majoring in secondary education is working as Pelham’s peer mentor.  Overstreet, a native of Bay Minette and graduate of McGill-Toolen, hopes other students will have this experience.

“I am first and foremost Benjamin’s friend,” Overstreet noted. “I model appropriate social behavior, assist him with his school assignments, act as a job coach while he is working on campus at the Registrar’s office. And, I do recreational activities with him, such as going to the student recreation center or attending athletic events.”

Benjamin’s parents, Lisa and Marc Pelham, have always had high expectations for their son. They have fought for him to have the best education possible from elementary to high school. When they reached out to Drs. Baxter and Campbell about the possibility of a college program at South, they never thought it would become a reality.

“South’s program has had a positive impact on our son,” Lisa Pelham said. “They care, and they saw the need to write a grant and now we have PASSAGE USA, which is a positive and vital component in the lives of young adults like our son, Benjamin.”

And one of the highlights of their son being in the program, according to his dad, was when Pelham sent him a text message for the first time. 

“It was the best day possible for me to get a text from my son, Benjamin," he said. “It was an absolute thrill for his mom and me to see him take advantage of that type of technology. He is growing in so many ways, and we have been working for years to help him have an independent life. Our advice to other parents is to let go and let them soar.”

PASSAGE USA was launched through a five-year grant received from the Office of Post-Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Going forward, the College of Education is hopeful for scholarship support, as participants are not eligible for financial aid. The College of Education’s PASSAGE USA program is taking applications for the 2017-2018 academic year, where 10 students will be accepted. The deadline is April 1. 

Benjamin Pelham, left, sits with his friend and peer mentor, Josh Overstreet of Bay Minette.

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