"Classroom Without Borders" Offers Students Freedom
In one word, “freedom” is the goal of Project L.I.V.E (Lifelong Independence and Vocational Education), says Nick Slusser, teacher and director of the successful Holmen School District program. “Every student has learned new skills and has had new experiences,” he says. “Every student walks out of this program a better person.” The La Crosse Area Family YMCA provides the ideal home to one of Wisconsin’s few special education community-based transition programs for 18-to-21-year olds. After completing the course, some students can reside in their own place while attending college or working in a job – a scenario that may not have been possible after high school graduation. It’s like a “classroom without borders,” Slusser says. “Many of the students meet more people in their year of Project L.I.V.E. than they’ve met their entire lives. The Y is our hanger, where we meet, plan, and go.” Since it began in 2010, Project L.I.V.E gives students the chance to explore areas vital to independence. No topic goes uncovered, including finances, job, and housekeeping skills. Along with Slusser, two full-time dedicated teachers, Pam Oliver and Sandy Stoddard, work closely with about seven students each academic year and about 18 students have completed it.
Sports, wellness, and socialization provide the foundation for its success and the Y offers it a perfect platform. Working out in the Wellness Center, students get a great chance to meet Y members. Once a week they eat lunch at the Y with a program director. “The members love interacting with the students,” says Coleman Breunig, Y Member Engagement Director. “We’re a snap shot of the community, and it allows the students to meet more people out of the high school setting.” Many Project L.I.V.E. students already know the Y in some way, such as competing on the Miracle League Field or volunteering. “It’s an inspiring program; it’s great to have the students here every day,” Breunig says. The physical education component reveals the value of lifetime fitness options, such as swimming, bowling, and fishing. “I show them how to incorporate these activities into their lives,” says Steve Eggerich, adaptive physical education teacher. “It builds confidence. They can see the changes in themselves and they want to continue.” With the assistance of Project L.I.V.E, the Adaptive Sports League became Holmen’s first varsity sports league for students with special needs. During three separate, exciting seasons, the league offers floor hockey, indoor soccer, and softball for Holmen High School athletes. An annual highlight is a FUNdraising event by the two groups with proceeds going toward purchasing needed items. Thanks to fundraising and donations, Project L.I.V.E. has its own wheelchair accessible bus that brings them to upwards of dozens of places each day.
Another highlight of Project L.I.V.E. is the annual overnight Twin Cities cultural trip, with support from FUNdraising. It’s the ultimate test of all they’ve learned including socialization, etiquette, budgeting and preparedness, as well as an intrapersonal push toward bravery by attempting something out of their comfort zone. But more importantly, it’s a chance for the group to have fun and experience an even wider world. “For some students, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home over night,” Slusser says. This dynamic teacher consistently compares the students’ struggles within the community with at first learning how to play the guitar. “It’ll hurt at first, but over time and with continued practice, calluses build and the students begin to transition with ease without even knowing it.” Project L.I.V.E. gives students the chance to experience some trial and error within a safety net. “They’re held accountable for their actions, but I tell them the real world can be a lot tougher on them,” Slusser says. “We give them the full reign of responsibilities to explore and to succeed.”
~ By Kim Seidel, Seidel Ink