By Christine A. Verstraete
Transformations happen every day behind the brick walls of Shepherds College, a private school for special education students located on a sprawling 90-plus-acre campus in Union Grove.
For Nee Dow, a 21-year-old refugee from Burma, attending Shepherds allows him to plan for a future doing work he enjoys. “I like how they teach us to be independent in different areas,” he says. “I plan to work for a landscaping company. I like the fresh air.”
Now in his second-year studying horticulture, Dow was only three when his family fled political unrest in his country. After being refused entry to a Thailand refugee camp, the family lived in the jungle where Dow contracted malaria and woke from a coma with brain damage. The family came to the U.S. in 2006.
For students like Dow with academic or adaptive behavior limitations and cognitive delays due to brain trauma or injury, or who have conditions such as Autism, Asperger’s or Down Syndrome, Shepherds College takes a different approach to special education. Operating under the umbrella of Shepherds Ministries, the Christian school was founded on the promise of Jeremiah 23:4, which is also engraved on the front window, to “…Set up shepherds over them which shall feed them; and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord.”
Instead of focusing on “inclusion,” where students are mainstreamed into regular school programs, students here are immersed in three years of full day programming and campus life with one goal: to help them become successful adults who are independent, self-supporting, and fulfill their God-given purpose.
“You’re trying to set them up for success,” says Executive Director Tracy N. Terrill. “They’ve experienced enough failure in life. Inclusion is a word used against what we do. We are teaching them at their level, it’s more a social experience.”
Students start with a core program that teaches them basic life skills such as hygiene, shopping, menu planning and diet, checkbook balancing and budgeting. They learn to cook for themselves and others. Other skills include interviewing, job seeking, public interaction and living with others. They participate in activity nights, social events, religious studies and Special Olympics. Many of the students are in the Shepherds College Choir, which gives an annual concert for students and performs at local churches and nursing homes.
Like any other college, first year students room with another student, the difference being that all living spaces are same sex. In year two, students move into one of the 10 shared apartments and choose a main study track, either horticulture or culinary arts. They learn every aspect of their chosen careers, from retail sales in the on-site greenhouse, to food preparation in the kitchen and more.
“We get students prepared for food service,” says Head Culinary Instructor Cassandra Comerford, who came to the college after culinary school and chef positions in Chicago and Milwaukee. “They’re learning the classics like I did, making stocks, sauces, etc. They’re working in baking, in food preparation, banquet and customer service. Once they learn methods and techniques, that applies to a lot of things.”
Tristian Castleman, a first-year student from Virginia, had already helped out in the kitchen at the Great Wolf Lodge resort at home, but he looks forward to learning even more at school. “I want to study culinary arts,” he says. His view is that you can succeed, “if you really work hard and try your best.”
By their third year, students do internships at local businesses, schools and restaurants. Gloria Engdahl, one of the school’s first graduates, interned at the Country Rose Bakery and Café and was hired there part-time in 2011. She lives in the area with her husband, who also graduated from Shepherds.
“I love the atmosphere and how it’s a family business,” says the 25-year-old. “It was a good fit for me. I liked (the café) right away. I always wanted to work in food service since I was in high school.”
Rose Laketa, who co-owns the cafés in Union Grove and Waterford with her sister Rita Zadurski, and thinks there should be more programs like this.
“This was kind of exciting,” says Laketa of the internship program. “I worked with special needs (people) at an institution as a CNA for 28 years. This is the stuff that should’ve happened 100 years ago. We gave it a try and it worked. It’s good for the staff and the customers are very accepting and warm.”
What began originally as a small Milwaukee boarding school for a handful of special education students in 1958 has since grown into a fully accredited college with a staff of 40. The 55 students come from 18 states, plus Hong Kong and Vietnam. The college first opened in 2008 with six students.
Tuition is now around $42,000 a year. Outside scholarships can be applied for and internal, need-based scholarships are available. There also is a two-year Ai Academy that focuses on life skills instead of occupational skills for students with lower academic abilities.
For some students, college life and the structured programs are not always easy adjustments. Staff members say some have certain habits, attitudes or sometimes even anger issues to overcome. Others need to be reminded about responsibility and meeting their goals if they prefer to talk or waste time instead of doing their assigned work.
For example, says Dean of Students Lori Konopasek, “Some of them take literally what they see on TV.” When one young man was asked about his expectations of school, “he thought college was going to parties, hanging out and having fun. We had to challenge that a bit and he changed.”
For the parents, Shepherds is a stepping-stone to a life most never envisioned for their children.
“A successful student here is making $10 an hour,” says Terrill. “Most of the moms and dads of children with disabilities never started saving for college because they never thought it was an option. They never had the chance to plan, but they will take on debt and pay it off.”
Another important aspect of the program is its focus on helping students realize their God-ordained role.
“When students come here sometimes they don’t understand they were designed for a purpose,” says Dean of Education Angela Houk. “Sometimes they wrestle with their disability, so we also work with them on self-advocacy and self-awareness. Everything we do is filtered through their new lives. It needs to fit into an application for life after college.”
“It’s very freeing to say, ‘this is how I was made and this is how I can be successful,’” adds Konopasek. “Another problem they struggle to adapt to is structure. At first, some are really against it. They may not want to be cleaning and cooking, and now they’re encouraging each other. If somebody is not able to be successful, they choose that. It doesn’t happen a lot but they just aren’t willing. It’s just too hard.”
It’s also as rewarding for the staff to see the students achieve their goals.
“I enjoy helping the students discover their potential,” says Jim Anderson, paraprofessional in horticulture. He’s been a substitute teacher for two years and has been full-time since last July. “This time of year there isn’t much going on so we give them some added skills. We have a deck building station and work with rebuilding retaining walls, build a fence or put in tiles for drainage. I enjoy job coaching them and preparing them for after graduation and employment.”
“If you aim for every level of accomplishment, then it’s up to them to pursue it further,” says Owen Lackey, head horticulture instructor for 30 years. “I like seeing the light bulbs go on. It’s that recognition that, ‘Oh, I get it.’ They’ve taken a big step.”
After graduation, many students — 50 percent in fact — decide to live and work in the area. “I think everyone is a little surprised how many choose to stay here,” says Terrill. “For many, it’s the best life they ever experienced.”
Transportation is often a problem so many students use the Catalyst program, which arranges transportation and provides services as needed on a fee basis after graduation. “They pay for services they need, like maybe they need help in finances,” Terrill says. “They may need an hour or two, or five to six hours a week.”
But that small helping hand is nothing compared to what the students continue to accomplish.
“The students are able to be empowered and grow,” says Konopasek. “They can accomplish more than they ever thought they could.”
In fact, Shepherds’ students might even have a leg up on those attending school elsewhere.
“The young adults are learning skills that most people never get to learn,” says Joe Deciccio, residential life manager of the boys’ dorm. “They’re learning how to budget, how to cook, good hygiene … I think every college male should go through our program.”
For information, visit their website, www.shepherdscollege.edu.