Helping students with intellectual disabilities

Room 151 of the Kremen school of Education and Human Development building. (Khone Saysamongdy/The Collegian)

A program at Fresno State is making secondary education and an independent life possible for students. The Wayfinders Program is a two-year transitional program that helps students with intellectual disabilities learn to live independent lives.

The program was inaugurated six years ago, and is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Wayfinders is one of many transitional programs nationwide that benefit from the same grant. These programs teach students with intellectual disabilities living skills, vocational skills and everyday social skills in order to have successful independent lives after they graduate.

The program at Fresno State is run by Shail Lopez-Ortiz, who serves as the executive director. Lopez-Ortiz said the program’s ultimate goal is “to have students included.”

When Wayfinders was introduced on campus the program “didn’t have access to services for students with disabilities. They didn’t have access to the [University] Student Union (USU). They didn’t have access to the [Recreation Center],” Lopez-Ortiz said.

Students now have access to those buildings and can take classes. Students still have obstacles to overcome before they reach their ultimate goal, but the university has been a great help, Lopez-Ortiz said.

“With President [Dr. Joseph] Castro we are heading in the right direction,” she said.

Every student in Wayfinders meets with a case manager who assesses the student’s strengths and what barriers the student struggles with and tries to help the student work through them.

Donna Martinez, a case manager said, the program creates a team to discover how to break barriers and help students.

The case managers have to play different roles in the organization. Gabriel Diaz, another case manager, said they are oftentimes the point of contact for students. They are always there for the students when they need help and sometimes have to act as a counselor for the students if they are having a tough day or are dealing with problems and need to talk to someone.

“We are there to serve the student,” Diaz said.

Each section Wayfinders covers has a coordinator with assistants and volunteers who work with the students.

Ryan Wilson, the activities and transition coordinator, said the activities portion of the program is where they have fun but still do important work to help the students.

“We all link in – independent living is supporting them to live independently and vocation is to work independently,” Wilson said. “That’s great if they have their own apartment and a job, but if there is no social life to fill in the gaps, how are they a citizen of their community?”

The activities program helps the students maintain a balance between living on their own and work by planning activities so the students can still have fun and maintain a social life.

The activities program helps the students with planning a budget by teaching them how to plan how they will spend their money that week.

The program also helps the students find a room to live in at Palazzo at Campus Pointe and different resources in their community to make their transition out of Wayfinders as easy as possible.

Anna Riley, a sophomore in Wayfinders, moved into Palazzo after joining the program, making it her first time living away from her family.

Although the transition of joining the program was difficult, the staff helped her. She said the staff made sure the decision to stay was her own. Her biggest takeaway from the program was being confident enough to make her own decisions.

John Kellis is in his first year of the program and has enjoyed it so far, especially living in the Palazzo student housing.

He has learned a lot in his first few weeks with Wayfinders.

“It helps me to live independently, make sure you have good academic goals, and have goals to get a job and be open-minded when it comes to activities,” he said.

Kellis is excited to be in the program and is looking forward to what lies ahead.

Wayfinders is located in the Kremen Education Building Room 151.

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