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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)