Special education students can stay in high school until the end of the school year of their 21st birthdays, thanks to LifeLink PSU.
The State College Area High School program allows special-needs students ages 18 to 21 to experience life as college students. Through a collaboration with Penn State, LifeLink students are able to sit in on 100- and 200-level classes with Penn State students who volunteer as mentors.
The program started in 2002, and Marla Yukelson, the program coordinator, is finishing up her second year. A 13-year district veteran, she was previously a learning-support teacher at Park Forest Middle School.
“It’s those ‘a-ha’ moments that we see with students, when all of a sudden something rings for them or they’re really proud of something they did and you can share in that excitement with them,” Yukelson said. “We have a lot of those moments here. They just love being college students. It’s such an honor to be part of this phase of their lives.”
Students may apply to LifeLink once they have earned enough credits to graduate. Typically, students are around 18 or 19 when they first join the program.
This year, there are 15 students overall and 6 of them are graduating seniors.
Adam Garis, one of those graduating seniors, said that LifeLink allows him to “hang out with teachers, and it’s an awesome program. It’s hard for me to go, but I have to graduate this year.
“I’ll miss cheerleading the most,” Garis said. “We went to Shamokin, Philly and then we went to Pittsburgh and got first place. We have three trophies.”
The cheerleading program, called CheerLink, is a recent addition to LifeLink’s various activities.
“We had some mentors who had been doing some cheerleading with (the students), and from there we decided to enter some competitions,” Yukelson said. “One of the divisions is special-needs, so they had a cheerleading routine and they got first place.”
Aside from attending classes together and cheerleading, mentors can also spend time with the students by having lunch together, helping them with homework or working out together in the White Building through memberships provided by the program.
“One of our goals of this program is to increase socialization,” Yukelson said. “So, by being in a relaxed atmosphere, they’re learning how to interact appropriately, have good social conversations, and practicing social skills.
“Last fall, the 265 mentors resulted in a little over 5,800 hours of volunteer time, and so far this spring, we have a little over 3,700 hours. Now if we counted in our interns hours, then it was over 6,000 hours for the spring semester and almost 11,000 hours for this school year so far.”
Although some students may go on to college after they graduate from LifeLink, most go straight into a work environment.
To help prepare them for this, students are required to either volunteer or have a job.
“This year, I don’t have many classes because I work in the morning, from 7 until 11 in the commons right across from the business building,” Garis said. “I wash dishes, and then I help stock up milk.”
“We are preparing them for the rest of their lives, for life after school,” Yukelson said. “In order to come here, they have to have either a paid or volunteer work experience at least one to two days a week.
“As they get closer to leaving our program, we hope to increase that so we can mimic what a work day might look like for them.”
Sam Webb, a junior at Penn State, got emotional when talking about how much she has learned from the students in her years as a mentor.
“These kids have changed my life. They’re so amazing,” Webb said. “They teach you to really love life, and it’s just amazing that these kids who have ‘intellectual disabilities’ love life more than anybody I have ever seen and just love unconditionally. It’s fantastic.”
Yukelson added: “I think it’s two-fold. I think that on one end, our students benefit greatly from their interactions with the Penn State students. They get maturity, they get increased confidence; there are just so many pluses for them because of those interactions. On the other end, I think the PSU students themselves get just as much or more out of their relationships with the students. It introduces them to a population of students that maybe they haven’t had a lot of experience with and it’s very beneficial, so it’s really a win-win situation.”
The program does have difficulties that come along with the benefits.
“I feel like the hardest part is watching the kids having to make tough decisions on their own,” Webb said. “There’s only so much we can do to help them. Part of their experience here is to link their collegiate education with becoming a full adult, I mean that’s something all college kids have to face.”
LifeLink students still have to follow the time schedule of high schoolers, so they begin their days at 8:30 a.m. and take classes or work until 2:30 p.m.
Although the end of the school year is approaching and tears are likely to be shed at this year’s graduation ceremony, mentors and students alike looked back on their years fondly.
“It truly has been the best experience I’ve had at Penn State,” Webb said. “If there’s one thing that gets me all teary-eyed about thinking about myself graduating, it’s not being able to be with the kids here because I just love them so much.”
Casey McCracken is a senior at State College Area High School and the recipient of the Bill Welch Award for Excellence in Journalism.