1 month 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)

7 hours ago

University of North Alabama adopting new tuition plan

The University of North Alabama is switching to a tuition plan that officials say will result in increased costs for some students but not others.

Officials at the school in Florence say they are reducing the total number of student fees from seven to one, and fees will be included in the overall tuition cost.


A statement says students taking 15 hours will see a maximum increase in expenses of 4.1%.

But some could pay less, and costs will not change for others.

School officials say a lag in state funding is a continuing problem.

North Alabama’s vice president for business, Evan Thornton, says the school has deferred maintenance and capital needs totaling more than $160 million.

The school has an undergraduate enrollment of about 6,200 students.
(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

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8 hours ago

Nathan Lindsay joining governor’s office from BCA

Another high profile staffer from the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is joining Governor Kay Ivey’s senior level team.

The governor on Monday announced that Nathan Lindsay will join her office as director of appointments effective July 1.

This position is charged with spearheading the meticulous work that goes into Ivey meeting her duty to appoint qualified, representative and appropriate people to positions on the state’s various boards and commissions.

A press release from the governor’s office outlined that Lindsay assumes the role with an extensive background in state government and the private sector, which uniquely qualifies him to advise the governor in this capacity.


Most recently, through his work in political and governmental affairs at the BCA, Lindsay interacted with members of the business community throughout the Yellowhammer State, which significantly adds to his ability to identify and select candidates for various appointed posts.

Additionally, Lindsay’s early career included time in then-Governor Bob Riley’s office where he served as aide to the governor from 2006 to 2011. Lindsay also worked in the governor’s communications office as deputy press secretary and advised Riley on education policy.

“Nathan brings to our team a wealth of knowledge that I know will serve the state well,” Ivey said in a statement. “In addition to his expertise and insight, Nathan is a man of character. The men and women of my staff must have a strong work ethic, a depth of knowledge and a heart for public service. Nathan certainly embodies all of these characteristics.”

Lindsay earned his bachelor’s degree from Faulkner University. During his time at Faulkner, he served as SGA president and later, in 2018, he was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award for the College of Arts and Sciences.

“As governor, I have the important responsibility of appointing qualified individuals to serve on the more than 450 boards and commissions in our state. These men and women must not only be highly-qualified, but they should also be a true reflection of our great state,” Ivey added. “I am confident we will continue to find the best people to serve our state, just as I am certain Nathan will serve my Administration exceptionally well in this position. His experience speaks for itself, and he shares my goal of moving Alabama into a better future.”

This comes weeks after Leah Garner departed BCA to become Ivey’s communications director.

Mark Colson also left BCA to become head of the Alabama Trucking Association recently.

Update 5:55 p.m.:

BCA President and CEO Katie Boyd Britt released a statement commending Ivey on the hire of Lindsay.

“Nathan’s background and expertise in political affairs combined with his political acumen uniquely qualify him to serve the governor and the state in this capacity,” Britt said. “I have no doubt Nathan will do an outstanding job, and I commend Governor Kay Ivey on this excellent addition to her staff.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Alabama listed as one of the top 20 most patriotic states in America

A WalletHub report released Monday revealed Alabama to be on of the top 20 most patriotic states in America.

Ranked 19 overall on the list, with a score of 47.43, Alabama ranked first for the “Civics Education Requirement.”

The report “compared the 50 states across 13 key indicators of patriotism” and “ranges from share of enlisted military population to share of adults who voted in the 2016 presidential election to AmeriCorps volunteers per capita.”


With one as “Most Patriotic” and 25 as “Average,” Alabama received the following rankings:

  • 5th – Average Number of Military Enlistees per 1,000 Civilian Adults
  • 30th – Active-Duty Military Personnel per 100,000 Civilian Adults
  • 17th – Veterans per 1,000 Civilian Adults
  • 1st – Civics Education Requirement
  • 12th – Share of Civilian Adult Population in Military Reserves
  • 10th – Share of Adults Who Voted in 2016 Primary Elections

Alabama also ranked eight overall for ‘Military Engagement.’

The report, which compared red states to blue states in terms of patriotism, found that red states were more patriotic. Red states received an average rank of 23.67, while blue states received an average rank of 28.25.

Kyle Morris also contributes daily to Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @RealKyleMorris.

9 hours ago

Brooks: ‘Really dumb’ for Democrats to elect candidates mainly on ‘skin pigmentation or their chromosomes’

In an interview on WVNN’s “The Dale Jackson Show”on Friday, Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05) lamented that many Democrats have become more interested in racial and gender identity politics than the welfare of America.

Coming off of her much maligned comments comparing American immigration facilities to “concentration camps,” host Dale Jackson asked the north Alabama congressman if he believes that Democrats in Congress will allow Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to continue to serve as their “de facto face and leader.”

“Yes,” Brooks answered succinctly, promoting a follow-up request for his reasoning.


“Well, she is where she is,” Brooks explained. “She’s got a lot of political power. She’s got a lot of support — surprisingly.”

“There are large, large numbers of American citizens who have bit off on this socialist stuff, who have bit off on this victimization stuff, who have bit off on thinking that the most important criteria in determining whether to elect someone is their skin pigmentation or their chromosomes — which is really dumb, OK,” he continued. “We oughta be electing people based on their character and based on their public policy positions.”

“But, notwithstanding that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become the face of the Democratic Party in many different respects, and she does have great influence as evidenced by the presidential candidates on the socialist Democrats’ side who are trying to cultivate her support,” Brooks added. “They want her endorsement.”

Listen, starting at the 8:25 mark:

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Democrats hope it’s 2017 all over again, Republicans just want the nightmare to end

In 2017, Roy Moore won a Republican primary run-off against an extremely flawed Luther Strange. Strange wasn’t just a regular candidate — he had the cloud of his appointment, and he was dogged by former Gov. Robert Bentley’s investigation, impeachment and resignation.

Alabama Republicans, outside of U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), were reluctant to criticize Roy Moore because they knew doing so would hand the Senate seat to now-Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).

But this is different.


State Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) told the Montgomery Advertiser that he blamed the GOP establishment in 2017, but still thinks Moore can’t win in 2020.

He stated, “I do not believe, with the numbers I look at, that Roy Moore at the end of the day can get the nomination.”

State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) dismissed Moore when asked about the candidates, saying, “If you look at the candidates, you got Roy Moore. I don’t think we need to say more there.”

Later, he all but endorsed U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) by saying Byrne “would do the best job.”

Secretary of State John Merrill, a potential future Moore opponent, believes Moore has an uphill battle against Jones.

“I think it would be extraordinarily difficult for Judge Moore to be successful in a general election campaign against Senator Jones,” Merrill outlined.

He added, “I also think it would be difficult for Judge Moore to secure the Republican nomination.”

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville), who endorsed Moore in 2017, has already endorsed State Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) and is on record saying former U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions would be a favorite.

“I do believe that Jeff Sessions would clearly be number one in the poll rankings, based on his having been such a great senator on three principle issues: free enterprise versus socialism; deficit and debt; and border security,” he explained.

Say what you will, but you do not usually see these kinds of pronouncements from Republicans in the middle of a primary.

Democrats hope 2017 is going to be repeated in 2020, but there are many different factors that will matter.

Roy Moore is already fatally flawed as 300,000+ Republicans voters abandoned him in 2017 and stayed home. Many of those voters will vote in the primary in 2020, but will not vote for him.

U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Saks) expressed a similar sentiment on CSPAN last week.

“I personally don’t think Roy Moore is going to be our nominee, but whoever our nominee is will prevail in November because you’ll have the full complement of Republican voters turning out turning out to vote,” he said.

This is not 2017.

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