University Participant Program Benefit Gala brings friends, family together

People whose lives have been positively affected by WCU’s innovative University Participant Program get together to celebrate its 10th anniversary, including (from left) program volunteers Sara Liles, Whitney Baldwin and Ashlee O’Dwyer; UP student Shawn Waitt, who will be completing the program in May; and Waitt’s mother, Angie Waitt of Hillsborough.

It was officially a fundraiser, complete with fancy dresses, smart suits, great food and a silent auction. But to many in attendance, the 2018 University Participant Program Benefit Gala was like a family reunion, with picture taking, memory sharing, handshakes and hugs.

The event, held April 7 at Laurel Ridge Country Club in Waynesville, was the first ever for Western Carolina University’s 10-year-old program, which provides a two-year, on-campus living and learning experience for college-age students with intellectual disabilities. Money raised will go to student scholarships and program support, said Kelly Kelley, a WCU associate professor of inclusive and special education who co-directs the program with David Westling, the university’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Education.

Students, who earn a certificate for completing the program, pay the same tuition and fees as other WCU students, Kelley said. A $2.5 million federal grant expired in 2015, which resulted in the reduction of program staff, but not students.

The program, hailed by parents and students alike as an invaluable service for people with intellectual disabilities, helps students transition from secondary school to adult life with education, employment and independent living. Of the 34 students who have been enrolled in the program since its inception, 21 attended the fundraiser.

“I love this school,” said Shawn Waitt, a 20-year-old student from Hillsborough who will complete the program in May. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without it.”

University Participant Program alumna Ali Hale takes advantage of a photo opportunity with a giant inflatable version of Paws, the WCU athletics mascot.

Waitt spent the past two years auditing courses in parks and recreation, learning to play the alto saxophone, serving as manager of the Catamount men’s basketball team, working on landscaping the WCU campus and hanging out with his new friends.

“High school was easy, but coming to college has been hard,” he said. “My confidence comes and goes, but I’m excited right now.”

His mother, Angie Waitt, said she has seen a world of change in her first born, who loved sports as a child. “He has learned the reality of living on his own,” she said. “He’s had to make adult decisions and experience the consequences of that, and just learn to be responsible and disciplined – all those things all kids learn when they go to college.”

She is hoping her son will land a job with a landscaping company back home after he leaves campus, thanks to the experience he has had working for the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department, WCU’s Department of Recreation and Wellness, the WCU Greenhouse and the WCU Bookstore.

Leslie Stevens of Asheville said she has grown as much as her 23-year-old son, Kincade Fuller, in his first year in the program. Fuller, who is nonverbal, is auditing sport management. He grew up playing adaptive football, basketball, baseball and snowboarding. But sending him to the UP program freed both of them in ways she never expected. “I discovered that I protected him too much,” she said. “This program brought out his natural abilities. Everything I had worried about he did with ease.”

He’s learned how to use money and to take care of himself, she said. “Being nonverbal was a very big part of my concern, that he wasn’t going to be able to tell people what he needs.” But it hasn’t been a problem, she said.

For the Kurrimbukus family of Hayesville, the UP program helped prepare 26-year-old Lexie Kurrimbukus for her current job: working in her family’s catering and hospitality business. “It definitely gave her job skills, all the internships she had there,” her mother, Nina Kurrimbukus, said. “They built upon her strong work ethic.”

Lexie Kurrimbukus was 19 when she entered the program in 2011. She audited law enforcement and environmental issues. “They worked with her to develop a vision and a plan so she could learn to be independent and express herself and ask for help if needed,” Nina Kurrimbukus said.

The UP program began at WCU in 2007 to address the need for inclusive services beyond high school for individuals with disabilities. It relies on about 200 mostly student volunteers each semester to help the UP students adjust to college life. “It depends on what the student needs,” Kelley said. “We’re pretty student-centered.  We have person-centered planning meetings every month, led by the UP students. They tell us what they need or if they need support.”

The program’s success has not gone unnoticed.  WCU has partnered with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to start its own program, Heels UP, next year. And they helped start another in Austria, Kelley said.