Outreach program teaches life skills Towson project helps developmentally disabled students enter 'real world'

March 09, 1998|By Jenny Huddleston | Jenny Huddleston,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Tim O'Neill walks into work as if he owns the place. With a quick greeting to his cafeteria co-workers, he's already unstacking chairs.

Leah Alikahn wants to be a writer, but for now she's content straightening greeting cards and clothing in the Towson University bookstore.

From afar, it's hard to tell they're both developmentally disabled. Their comfort is due, in part, to the Towson University Outreach Program, which gives developmentally disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 21 an educational transition into the "real world."

"We're trying to teach them life skills to help integrate them into the community," said Sandy Fisher, the program's coordinator, who believes that older developmentally disabled students belong among students their own age.

At Towson University, her 12 students reap the benefits of a varied environment.

Every morning, county buses pick up Fisher's students at their Baltimore County homes and transport them to the university.

A 4- by 8-foot white board outlines the day's activities -- everything from recycling to helping out in the library, in addition to the regular work and class schedules each student maintains.

The academic environment blends classroom learning with practical skills vital to young adults. Students use a grocery store picture menu guide in planning a budget for shopping trips, learn to write checks, and then visit the campus mini-mart or bank to put their knowledge to work.

"That's the beauty of being on-campus," said Fisher. With its varied shopping and banking outlets, Towson University is particularly well-suited for application of basic skills, she said.

Fisher started working with the Outreach Program at Towson University last year, after more than 20 years in the special education field. An inspiration was her daughter, Melanie, who has mild cerebral palsy and graduated from high school four years ago.

"Where was the program for my child?" asked Fisher, who felt Melanie's options were limited upon graduation.

Baltimore County public schools, in conjunction with Baltimore County Community Colleges, started creating Outreach programs more than two years ago, starting with Catonsville and Essex, then Towson.

The county is obligated under federal law to provide free education to developmentally disabled students from birth until age 21, said Marjean Funn, special education facilitator with Baltimore County Public Schools.

Students in Outreach also take part in the Best Buddies program, sponsored by the Shriver Foundation, which pairs them with nondisabled college students to encourage "good social relationships," said Sandra Maranto, an assistant to Fisher. "A phone call, or just dropping by can be so important to them," she said.

Nondisabled college-age peers, such as Holly Pecoraro, a sophomore elementary education and special education major at Towson University, also work as paid helpers with the Outreach students.

"I just have fun with them, dancing and playing on the computer," said Pecoraro. "It's good that they get to talk to people their age."

The program's main focus, though, is putting students into real-life work situations -- and they love it.

Katie Mellendick, a 20-year-old with Down syndrome, said she feels "cool" in the uniform she wears to bus tables at the campus Patuxent dining room -- a matching green cap and apron, a striped white top and black slacks.

Anna Denmyer, 20, works two jobs on-campus, but prefers helping in the university day care center. The 3-year-olds are fun, she said, "but they wear me out."

O'Neill, 21, said he can't wait to graduate in May. With his practical work experience in the Towson University Den, he hopes to get a job at McDonald's. "I can cook fries or hamburgers, or clean up," he said, grinning beneath his uniform cap.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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