When Katy Ann Killingsworth’s older sister started visiting colleges more than five years ago, the younger sibling expressed her excitement for her future in higher education as well. It quickly became apparent to their mother, Juanita, that she had to figure out a way to make that dream a reality for Katy Ann.
The task was especially challenging for Juanita Killingsworth, as the request went beyond the usual college questions, such as where to attend and what to study. Katy Ann is a young woman living with Down syndrome.
Juanita said she was running out of options when she found out about a new inclusive postsecondary education program being created at the University of West Georgia.
“She was so excited when she received her acceptance letter, you would have thought she had been accepted into an Ivy League school with a full scholarship,” Juanita said. “To her, that is exactly what has happened.”
The program – Project WOLVES (World of Opportunities for Learning, Volunteering, Employment and Socializing) – is the brainchild of Dr. Jessica Bucholz, associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Literacy and Special Education. With continuous funding from a federal grant, she has been in the planning phase for Project WOLVES since 2016.
The program is housed in the continuing education department.
Bucholz said the main purpose of Project WOLVES is to provide individuals 18 years or older who have intellectual disabilities with opportunities to continue their education, socialize with peers who are the same age, gain additional employment skills and overall grow more independent.
“Unfortunately, when students with intellectual disabilities graduate high school, they don’t have much access to the broader community through jobs or social activities,” Bucholz said. “Hopefully this will give them the opportunity to learn those skills and broaden their horizons after high school graduation.”
Katy Ann will be the first student to participate. The pilot year begins in August.
Bucholz’ vision includes having participants attend core courses – including ones that build soft skills – with each plan tailored to individual interests. One of the pieces she’s worked into the program is an internship experience.
“I want them to be able to work on job skills,” she said. “So if someone is interested in working with children, we could try a situation where s/he interns in a classroom as a teacher-helper. The idea is hopefully if a job becomes available, that person may be hired for that position. Or someone may choose to go on to West Georgia Technical College or take a course here for credit. It really is going to depend on each student’s abilities, goals and desires.”
Along with colleagues at the Georgia Inclusive Post-Secondary Education Program, Bucholz is also exploring the idea of partnering with school systems to create a dual enrollment program. Because of the law supporting special education, students who qualify may remain in high school through their 21st birthdays. Bucholz hopes to provide another option for those learners.
“After they’ve been in high school for four years, does it make sense for them to stay, even though they’re legally able?” she asked. “With the dual enrollment idea, they would technically still be high school students but would come to college to continue their educations in a different, more age-appropriate environment.”
Bucholz sees Project WOLVES as not only beneficial to participants but the overall community as well.
“There is a wonderful opportunity for growth on both sides,” she said. “There’s a lot that can come out of interacting with people who don’t look like you or act like you or have the same level of educational experiences you do. There’s a lot that can be gained from that.”
And while most students are relishing their summer break, it can’t go fast enough for Katy Ann.
“I am so excited to go to college in the fall at UWG,” said Katy Ann, who currently works at Chick-fil-A in Peachtree City. “Going to college will help me to find a job working with children. I love the professor, Ms. Jessica. I have already met several students who gave me a tour of the campus. I really like the mascot. Go Wolves!”
Acceptance into the program has already given Katy Ann a sense of accomplishment, according to Juanita, who said she is grateful to Bucholz and UWG for providing this opportunity.
“From the first day we found out that there was a possibility that Katy Ann may have Down syndrome, we’ve never really known what the future would hold for her,” she said. “However, we have held her to high standards and expected her to excel. Every child deserves that.”