'STRIVE' Program Yields First Five Grads

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Five of the nation's newest college grads earned degrees from a model program that offers college courses and a supported-living environment for mentally disabled students. As Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports, the five members of STRIVE U's first class now have their own apartments and jobs.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This is the time of year when many college students unpack their microwaves, get acquainted with their roommates and say hello to their chemistry professors. But a group of students from Portland, Maine are embarking on a different journey this semester: life on their own.

The five classmates recently graduated from STRIVE U, an intensive post-secondary education and training program for young adults with developmental disabilities. And as Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports, the students' struggles have been a lesson for those around them too.

(Soundbite of "Pomp and Circumstance")

SUSAN SHARON: It was a traditional commencement exercise with one major difference: all five graduates of STRIVE U have Down Syndrome or other developmental disabilities, and each delivered a short speech. Brittany Noise(ph) used her speech to thank a staff mentor.

Ms. BRITTANY NOISE (STRIVE U Graduate): I had so much fun with Kiersten(ph) because she helped me with my goals. Sorry. And she was always very nice to me.

SHARON: To graduate from the first of its kind program, students were required to take several college classes at the University of Southern Maine, get a job, and learn how to manage a checkbook, hail a cab and plan a menu. In other words, to live as independently as possible.

In her tidy efficiency apartment, with posters of Ludacris, Bow Wow and other rap stars over her bed, 27-year-old Christina Mayot(ph) assembles a breakfast sandwich from scratch and talks about what it's like to be on her own. She worries about spending money. She wants to learn how to manage her bills on her laptop. And even after two years in a college apartment, she's still adjusting to life away from home.

Ms. CHRISTINA MAYOT (STRIVE U Graduate): Being away from my mom is the most hardest thing on Earth, but I like my independence too.

SHARON: Do you get lonesome?

Ms. MAYOT: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It's scary being by myself sometimes.

SHARON: Is it being in charge of your life? Is that what's scary?

Ms. MAYOT: Kind of, yeah. And when I have thunderstorms, I'm scared of thunder and lightning and loud noises, sirens and stuff.

SHARON: Like many of her peers, Mayot says she was teased all through elementary and high school. She retreated to her bedroom for long stretches at a time. She says STRIVE helped her to come out and to learn to be more social. Her mother, Irene Mayot, says she never thought it would be possible.

Ms. IRENE MAYOT (Christina's Mother): My thinking was she will never do this, she will never get married, she will never move out of the house, she'll never be on her own. And as the years went by, she changed my mind, teaching me that she is capable of doing a lot of things.

SHARON: STRIVE graduates are expected to pay their rent and other bills with the money they earn from their jobs. And while their low-cost housing is subsidized, program administrators and parents estimate that students' independence saves about $40,000 a year in fees to personal attendants. Even more difficult to calculate are the cost benefits to the greater community.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SHARON: Here at the gleaming TD Banknorth building in downtown Portland, corporate executives have gotten used to STRIVE students passing out their paychecks and mingling with them in the lunchroom. For Banknorth President William Ryan, the decision to employ STRIVE graduates was easy. He has two young granddaughters with Down Syndrome.

Mr. WILLIAM RYAN (President, TD Banknorth): I think there's no limitations. I think it's a shame if companies don't participate in this program. Can STRIVE U work in every corporate area, in America in every city and every town? I don't know. In maybe bigger cities it might be a little more difficult to do. But certainly in communities like Portland, Maine and other cities that size, it's a very good fit.

Ms. JULIE JERMAN(ph) (STRIVE U Graduate): Oh yeah, I need this.

SHARON: Julie Jerman has worked in the human resources department at TD Banknorth for the past 18 months.

Ms. JERMAN: There it go.

SHARON: And while some of her coworkers were initially skeptical about her job placement here, Jay Milligan says Jerman's sheer will to do a good job has changed their minds.

Mr. JAY MILLIGAN (Bank Employee): You'll go by the photocopier room and she'll say, okay, now that one's done, I'll put that one over here and this one's next. And she sort of talks herself through the process, and then she'll say, good, I'm done, and she'll, you know, giggle and squeal. It's so much fun to have her here.

SHARON: Milligan says sometimes Jerman gets overwhelmed with a task or has a bad day. But co-workers say they've learned to give out hugs more easily, and to spot in each other what Julie Jerman has shown them: that everyone struggles and everyone is capable of reaching her goals, if given the right tools, patience and positive reinforcement.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Portland, Maine.

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