4 months ago

South Alabama graduates first class of PASSAGE USA

Everyone wants to be valued and contribute to society in some way, and graduates of the inaugural class of the University of South Alabama’s PASSAGE USA program have completed the two-year requirements and are ready to start their next journey filled with education and improved technology, social and work skills.

The first student to be accepted into the PASSAGE USA program in spring semester 2017 was Benjamin Pelham, now age 24, of Mobile. He was the first to complete the non-degree program in December 2018, and was one of six students to graduate and receive his certificate during USA’s May 4 spring commencement ceremony held at the Mitchell Center.

PASSAGE USA, which stands for Preparing All Students Socially and Academically for Gainful Employment, is for entering students ages 19-25 who have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability, meaning an IQ of 70 or below.

“When we first announced this program, we shared our philosophy, ‘College is Possible,’” said Dr. Abigail Baxter, project director and professor of special education in USA’s College of Education and Professional Studies. “And now with our first graduating class, we have created a program that has strengthened each student’s independent living, technology, social and job-readiness skills. And we have proven that there are no limits for these students. We know that the research shows students do better when they’re with their typical peers, and many of those peers are studying at colleges and universities.”

Prior to PASSAGE USA, Benjamin’s parents, Lisa and Marc Pelham, reached out to Baxter and Dr. Dennis Campbell, associate professor of education, about the possibility of a college program at South Alabama, and now their son is a member of the historic first graduating class. When Benjamin started the program, he worked in the campus Registrar’s Office. After commencement, he will continue working at his dream job at the USA Bookstore on campus. And, he will continue working at Tropical Smoothie, serving the smoothies and cleaning when needed. He hopes to become a manager.

“I have had a fun and enjoyable experience at the University of South Alabama,” Pelham said. “I have learned how to use my smart phone, ride the JagTran and walk safely across campus. I went to all my classes. I love my job at the campus bookstore. I help with folding and hanging up the clothes, along with putting out other merchandise.”

Pelham has found many friendships and, perhaps, love at South. He and his fellow graduate, Kaylee Walker, are now dating.

Alexandra Chanto-Wetter is the assistant director of the PASSAGE USA program. She left the Mobile County Public School System as a special education teacher to join the PASSAGE USA team.

“These young adults have their own feelings, emotions, needs, ideas and dreams,” said Chanto-Wetter. “I have been very honored to work in this field, and I was under the assumption that most of these students were participating in some type of program following high school. But it does not happen. After high school, many of them are isolated and sitting at home. But once they enter the PASSAGE USA program, it will be the first time many of them will think on their own, make decisions and mistakes. They also learn that they are similar to other college freshmen on campus.”

Chanto-Wetter said it’s been amazing to see how they have grown over time as students at South Alabama.

“It was great to see them build confidence and learn how to introduce themselves in a classroom,” she said. “They were shy at first, but working with their student peer mentors helped them blossom. It’s like watching a beautiful garden grow. They are now able to leave campus with their unique personality and skills. They are now employees and community volunteers. It’s amazing. We have awakened that persona that’s always been there. We have given them the opportunity to walk outside of boundaries. They are ordering food by themselves and they have even applied for their library cards.”

Graduate Keith Griffith, 21, came into the program with a big video announcement on Facebook that went viral, where his mother read his acceptance letter. He garnered a large following after the post. Since being in the program, he has worked for Mobile Popcorn, where he washed dishes and bagged popcorn. He will continue to work for Ruby Tuesday in Saraland, where he serves as host and greets customers.

“I am excited about this program,” he said. “I am so excited to graduate. Everyone was helpful. I love my mama and friends. I was able to greet customers by myself at Ruby Tuesday. I work a couple of nights per week.”

Keith’s mom, Heather Griffith, said the experience was more than what she expected. USA kept them informed in advance, and she has seen an improvement in her son. “Keith was able to spend his first check buying lunch at the Hard Rock Café in Biloxi in celebration of his birthday last year. This July for his birthday, he plans to see his favorite country artist, Josh Turner,” Griffith said.

Kathryn McMaken is the mother of recent graduate Michelle McMaken, 27. She was hesitant about letting her daughter participate in the PASSAGE USA program, and didn’t think Michelle would even qualify. But a friend encouraged her to let Michelle interview for the program, and she is so grateful she did.

“We never allowed Michelle to be independent,” McMaken said. “Me and my late husband were very protective of her. The interview was the first step, and I was shocked when I was told she interviewed beautifully. After much trepidation, we decided to let her participate for one semester. But it was obvious that she was going to do the entire program. She loved the teachers, student peer mentors and the work. She loved the technology, like cell phones, iPad and laptop computers, and she enjoys her job at MOD Pizza, where she folds pizza boxes and greets customers.”

Michelle has also enjoyed being a member of the South Alabama cheerleaders when she was a student. “I am so happy my daughter was asked to cheer for the Jaguars,” McMaken said. “She had a uniform, and Michelle cheered at the home football, basketball and softball games. They welcomed her with open arms, and I just love how they included my daughter and allowed her to live out one of her dreams.”

South Alabama student Payton Parnell, a junior majoring in elementary education and sociology, has worked as Michelle’s peer mentor. She said her life has changed because of this experience, and she has many great memories of sweet friends.

“Peer mentoring gave me friendships, laughter, love and most importantly, a way to show acceptance in a meaningful way,” Parnell said. “Through the eyes of PASSAGE students, they love life. Me and Michelle spent quality time together and became friends. Michelle and I were football game and cheerleading friends. We had numerous lunch dates and study sessions. Michelle and the other PASSAGE students have given me passion and happiness. I hope I have given them empowerment. In my eyes, the PASSAGE students helped me more than I helped them.”

John Heinl is the transition coordinator. And, Lauren Perry is the student employment coordinator. She works to secure job placements for the PASSAGE USA students.

“My goal is to make sure they are placed on a job they are interested in,” Perry said. “When they graduate and leave PASSAGE, we want to make sure that they are independent and using the natural support at their job site. We want them happy, content and supported by their work family and local businesses. To see the growth of this class brings tears to my eyes. They are successful members of society.”

To support PASSAGE USA, get information about the Gaillard-Neville Reynolds Scholarship.

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

6 hours ago

State Sen. Figures: ‘I didn’t ask’ to be on ATRIP-II — ‘Very ironic I end up’ on it

Last week when State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) was dismissed by Gov. Kay Ivey from the ATRIP-II committee and was replaced by State Sen. Vivian Davis Figures (D-Mobile), it raised a few eyebrows.

The consensus was that Elliott was being punished for his outspoken opposition to the Alabama Department of Transportation’s proposed I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge, which was in part to be financed by a toll.

During an appearance on this weekend’s broadcast of Alabama Public Television “Capitol Journal,” Figures reacted to her appointment by Ivey. She noted the nature of these appointments and that she also lost an appointment when Lt. Will Ainsworth took her off of the Joint Transportation Committee earlier this year and said it was a result of comments she had made “at the microphone.”


“He’s not the only one that’s been taken off of a committee,” she said. “It happens all the time. It happens in the House. It happens in the Senate. It goes back and forth, and that is the governor’s prerogative to do such.”

Figures had not taken an outspoken position on the I-10 bridge project but said that she did not think the burden should be put on local residents in Mobile and Baldwin Counties.

“I don’t think it should be the responsibility of the citizens of Mobile and Baldwin Counties to pay for that I-10 bridge,” Figures said. “It is an interstate. I think it should be the state and the federal government that should bear the cost of it. At the same time, if we are to pay for it, let the people decide if that’s what they really want since they say it’s in the very high percentage rates of local citizens using that bridge. It’s a lot to work out. But I’m a consensus builder, and I’m going to work with the governor to try to do that.”

The Mobile County Democrat said she was grateful for the appointment by Ivey, adding that she would bring “diversity” to the ATRIP-II committee.

“I was very humbled and honored when she called and asked me to serve,” she said. “It really was to my surprise that there was not a Democrat nor an African-American legislator on the ATRIP-II committee. Now there’s definitely diversity. Of course, there is an African-American — County Commissioner Tony Cherry from [Cherokee] County is on that committee. So, I was very pleased to add that diversity. I want to take to that committee a voice for the voiceless if you will. We have a number of counties in this state that don’t have the resources or revenues to give that skin in the game, if you will, in terms of matching funds. But then, they have priorities, too. And we are supposed to be about protecting the health, safety and welfare of all of our citizens. So that is the voice I want to bring to that committee.”

Host Don Dailey alluded to the “irony” of Figures appointment, particularly given Figures opposed the Rebuild Alabama Act passed earlier this year, which resulted in a hike of the state’s gas tax. She acknowledged the irony, but said she did not actively seek a spot on that committee.

“I stand by that vote,” she said. “I voted against it. I did tell the governor that I would vote if she would expand Medicaid because this state did not expand Medicaid, therefore they left $1.3 billion on the table along with 30,000 jobs. It chose not to expand Medicaid. Had we expanded Medicaid, we would not have needed this gas tax. And to me, this gas tax is a very expensive and regressive tax, which will be on the backs of people who can least afford it.”

“Let me just say this: I didn’t ask to be on this committee,” Figures added. “And it is — it is very ironic I end up on the committee that decides it. But you know, for me — I’m a very spiritual woman of deep faith. God is in control. I was asked to be on it and although I voted against the tax, I want to be that voice for the voiceless.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

7 hours ago

VIDEO: Ivey punishes toll opponents, ongoing impeachment talks, Madison shows the state how to raise taxes and more on Guerrilla Politics …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Should Governor Kay Ivey be punishing toll opponents like State Senator Chris Elliot (R-Daphne) for their disagreements?

— Why not just admit that Democrats are trying to impeach President Donald Trump?

— Why did 70% of voters in Madison say “YES” to a new tax increase?


Jackson and Burke are joined by State Senator Sam Givhan to talk about road projects and how Alabama Department of Transportation and Governor Ivey move forward after their big defeat.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” where he argues that companies banning their customers from carrying weapons in their stores aren’t really doing anything but chasing good press by placating a mob and their media.


Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN.

9 hours ago

Itty Bitty Bakers makes cooking fun and informative for Alabama kids

It starts with a special ingredient – in this case, registered dietician and educator Jessica Hamby.

Combine with the children willing to learn and participate. Flavor in a mix of art, crafts, reading and hands-on learning. Then top off with the capable hands of proven instructors and assistants, and you have Itty Bitty Bakers.


Hamby started Itty Bitty Bakers in 2018 to bring her own love of cooking with healthy and fresh ingredients to children in her neighborhood. The belief was that if the children had a hand in preparing healthy foods, they would be more inclined to try and then enjoy foods that are better for them.

It worked. Hamby, who has a master’s in health education, created a curriculum that reinforces the recipes and helps teach children about where food comes from, how ingredients are used to make a dish and how cooking can be a fun and creative outlet for people of any age.

Itty Bitty Bakers has the recipe for making cooking fun and educational for kids from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

What started as a couple of summer camp classes quickly grew into monthly classes and then multiple classes for students of different ages.

“It really took off,” said Melissa Carden, an instructor with Itty Bitty Bakers. “It seemed to be something that the community really had a need for. There was always a demand.”

Today, the program has two instructors, teaching assistants, a team of youth helpers and even students from the University of Alabama nutrition program who intern during the summer.

At one recent bakers camp, the students picked basil, used it in a recipe, learned about growing fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables during story time, colored pictures of herbs and even took recipes and basil seeds home with them. The basil was used to make basil-cheddar biscuits, which they got to enjoy during snack time.

Each class and camp teaches children to be comfortable in the kitchen, builds on their understanding of where food comes from and encourages creativity.

“It’s really fascinating how much they enjoy the hands-on – the mixing, the pouring – every child gets to add at least one ingredient to the recipe,” Carden said. “It’s fun to see how capable they are. They’re capable of a lot more than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Itty Bitty Bakers offers classes for preschoolers, grade schooler and pre-teens. There are camps during the summer, classes during the school year and special workshops throughout the year. Prices vary and registration is done online. Itty Bitty Bakers will even organize parties.

Itty Bitty Bakers can be found online, on Facebook, on Instagram and Pinterest.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 hours ago

Birmingham’s Alie B. Gorrie puts spotlight on disabled performers in new Amazon series

When Alie B. Gorrie moved to New York in 2015 after graduating from Belmont University, she was not unlike other young performers trying to find their way in the big city.

Armed with a resume that included shows at Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company (RMTC), Gorrie taught yoga and worked part-time as a teacher, all the while auditioning for (and getting some) roles at theater companies in the area.


But look at Gorrie’s resume, and you’ll see something listed that provided some extra challenges. Under “Special Skills,” she notes that she’s “legally blind/visually impaired,” having been diagnosed at an early age with low vision.

“When I moved to New York, casting directors would say, ‘Why is one of your eyes crossed?’,” Gorrie says. “I didn’t expect to hear that after singing a song. … I’ve faced having to learn how to speak about it and articulate what I needed around it very quickly.”

Gorrie is not alone, and her latest project showcases other performers dealing with their own disabilities in the arts world. Gorrie co-hosts and co-produces, with Kallen Blair, “ABLE: a series,” which is now streaming on Amazon Prime. There are eight 15-minute episodes, each of which focuses on a performer with a disability, including recent Tony Award winner Ali Stroker, who is in a wheelchair.

The series was conceived after Gorrie saw a musical called “Sam’s Room” off-Broadway.

“I‘ve never been so moved by something,” she says of the show about a teen with non-verbal autism. “I had this impulse to buy 10 tickets and invite people I knew to see the show.”

One of those people was Blair, who has a brother with non-verbal autism.

“After the show, she was weeping, and she said that it was the first time she had seen her brother represented so well in a story,” Gorrie says. “That got us started in these inclusion discussions.”

Later, when Gorrie was working in California and Blair in Boston, Blair sent her an email.

“She pitched a documentary series shedding a light on inclusion in theater,” Gorrie recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, yes, sign me up.’”

Each episode features one guest interviewed by Gorrie and Blair. The guests include Evan Ruggiero, a dancer who lost a leg to cancer at age 19; John McGinty, a deaf actor who starred on Broadway in “Children of a Lesser God”; and Danny Woodburn, an actor with dwarfism known best for his role on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”
The two interviewed Stroker prior to her Tony nomination and win for “Oklahoma!”

“She is the one who is truly paving the way for disabled artists everywhere now,” Gorrie says.

Gorrie and her family created Songs for Sight, an event that raises money for the Center for Low Vision Rehabilitation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The fundraiser, which has included performers such as Vince Gill, Sara Evans and Grace Potter, celebrates its 10th anniversary with a free concert at Red Mountain Theatre Company in October.

Gorrie really found her calling at RMTC, where she performed for a number of years. She counts RMTC Executive Director Keith Cromwell among those who helped her realize she could pursue a performing career while dealing with her vision issues.

“It took me a while to find teachers and mentors who knew how to not make too big a deal out of it while also not ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist,” Gorrie says.

Cromwell is one who recognized Gorrie’s talents early on.

“When you meet ‘special,’ it has no age, it’s timeless,” he says of Gorrie, who is now 26. “As I watch her grow into a magnificent adult and amazing artist who is changing the world, I could not feel more privileged to witness her advancing her cause, her art, her center – the truth of who she is.”

That’s really what’s at the core of “ABLE,” too, as artists talk about embracing their disabilities and finding opportunities to shine, even though it’s still an uphill battle to get casting directors to cast disabled actors.

Gorrie and Blair are already planning Season 2 of “ABLE,” looking to focus less on individuals and more on theaters and other groups that are embracing inclusion of disabled performers.

“We want to go to theaters and film sets and do documentary-style episodes going into the places that are inclusion champions,” Gorrie says.

“ABLE: a series” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

Alabama Habitat for Humanity chapter builds 14 homes in 1 week

To say Tonya Torrance is happy would be an understatement.

“It feels great. It’s a feeling that can’t be explained.”

Torrance and her family are one of 14 families who received a new home Thursday as part of this year’s Home Builders Blitz from the Greater Birmingham chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The chapter chose to celebrate its 14th anniversary by building 14 homes, a new record according to chapter President and CEO Charles Moore and a task that requires a tremendous amount of organizing and planning.


“We knew if we followed that plan and stuck to schedule with everybody doing their part, we could complete it on time,” Moore said. “We have hundreds of volunteers helping us, along with skilled tradesmen, professional homebuilders and many more behind the scenes helping with meals and sponsorships. Some of the big corporations in Alabama, such as Wells Fargo and Alabama Power have been with us year after year, as well as the Greater Birmingham Association of Home Builders — we couldn’t do it without our home builders who volunteer and give us this week of their time and help direct the house that they’re building.”

One of those home builders for this year’s blitz was Danniell Burton, a superintendent and project manager at Taylor Burton Company. Burton grew up helping his dad at Habitat builds, but this was his first year leading a build. He said the experience of building Torrance’s home was awesome.

“It gets stressful throughout the week — tons of subs and your mind is going a bunch of different ways, but to be done with it is awesome,” Burton said. “Seeing the homeowners’ faces walking in and just getting done with it is such a relief.”

Torrance said working with Burton was great.

“He didn’t ask for nothing he wouldn’t do,” Torrance said. “I love him.”

“It really does feel great,” Burton added. “As you make progress every day and seeing their faces is just a great feeling. You work late hours but the drive home at night you realize what you got done for the day and knowing they’re happy is what it’s all about.”

Moore said seeing people come together to help each other is what makes him most proud of the blitz builds.

“There’s no way we could do this without people pitching in to help,” Moore said. “We like to see ourselves as coordinators, as people who bring people together to help make it happen. We recognize that without the volunteers, without the financial support, without all of the folks that make this happen, that this would not happen.”

To learn more about the Home Builders Blitz program from the Greater Birmingham chapter of Habitat for Humanity, visit habitatbirmingham.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)