Cameron Northrup and Anthony Warren want the same things other college kids want.
A good education that could help them get a good job. To make new friends and learn the skills they need to live more independent lives.
But the fact that Warren and Northrup are Pensacola State College students makes them pioneers in a program that aims to expand opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in ways that have never been done in Florida.
They are part of the Arc Gateway Program for Adult Learning and Support at PSC, a pilot program that was rolled out in a news conference Thursday.
The PALS program will allow up to 40 young adults a year to enroll at PSC, take courses in academic, vocational and life skills with the aim of making them more marketable as employees and better able to lead independent lives.
“I don’t want to talk to you about my disability,” said Northrup, who has Down syndrome. “I want to talk about my abilities and choosing the PALS program for myself. I choose PALS for a good education and to learn from the PALS program to be a role model and a better, wonderful, brilliant student… and for what PALS will help me with for everyday life.”
PALS is the first program of its kind in the state, and came to life thanks to a recurring appropriation that Florida Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, got into the budget.
“This partnership will be a model for the state in proving we can go beyond K-12 education and traditional vocational training to post-secondary education for those with unique abilities,” Gaetz said.
“This will be in the budget unless God forbid one day the governor tries to strip it out and the Legislature agrees. As long as I am the senator from Northwest Florida, this money will always be in the budget.”
Gaetz credited Belle Bear — “an irresistible force of nature for good things in this community” — who brought the idea for the partnership among Arc Gateway and PSC to him.
“I said, ‘That sounds like a great idea, Belle, what can I bring to the table?’” Gaetz said. “She said, ‘You can bring the money.’”
Missy Rogers, CEO of The Arc Gateway, said the two-year program is designed to lead to meaningful employment for students. It will focus on career exploration, workforce readiness academics and living skills, including safety, money management, literacy, cooking and personal health.
“Graduates will exist the program ready to thrive in our great community,” Rogers said.
There are four academies that include vocational tracks such as child care, food service, construction, office/clerical and salesperson, said Suzie West, job development coordinator for the program. West will work to ensure the students will have opportunities for internships.
Program director Katy Hendry said a goal also is to have PALS graduates achieve certification on the Florida Ready to Work test, which measures workforce readiness skills. PALS students will have a student mentor, another PSC student who will serve as a mentor to help get the students get acclimated to college life.
PSC President Ed Meadows said the college is proud to be part of the program, which goes straight to the heart of PSC’s mission.
“Expanding access to our community, and that’s what this is about,” Meadows said.
Warren, who said he has autism, epilepsy and a traumatic brain injury that makes it difficult for him to concentrate, plans to make the most of his opportunity to go to college.
“I’m going to do it because my motto is take whatever is impossible and make it possible,” Warren said. “I know it can work.
“When I graduated from high school, I didn’t think I’d go to college, but here I am, talking to all of you,” Warren said.
“My name is Anthony. I’m a college student and I will succeed in life.”