October 18, 2018 | Hannah Ebeling

The 2018-19 Ready for Life class

“It’s good to know about the environment around you, and find out where you stand out in the world,” said Katie Kauffman, a Calvin student with Down Syndrome, about the Ready for Life (RFL) program.

Ready For Life Academy provides an inclusive college experience for adults with intellectual disabilities at both Calvin College and Hope College. RFL students audit two college courses each semester along with fellow Calvin and Hope students. In addition, life-skills classes, such as budgeting and lifetime management, are taught by a certified special education teacher.

Additionally, many RFL students take advantage of the wide array of activities Calvin has to offer and take part in everything from attending sports games to participating in Dance Guild. RFL students also have the opportunity to develop relationships with other students on campus. Each semester college students volunteer as mentors to RFL students, inside and outside of the classroom.

Preparation for post-college life

“I believe the RFL prepares my students for post-college life by teaching them how to be independent,” said Amber Gilliand, the Ready For Life teacher on Calvin’s campus. “They are put into situations they have never dealt with before, like getting to class on their own, having homework unique to their classes, planning their schedule, and working on time management.”

Kauffman said she is loving her first year in the RFL program. She is taking two Calvin classes, education science and jazz, in addition to her classes taught in the RFL classroom and a first-year seminar. “I don’t have a favorite class; I really love all my classes,” she said. “My science class is a little difficult, but I enjoy it.”

RFL student, Chad Verkaik said his entire family, including two older sisters graduated from Calvin, so he was excited to start school at a place he was already familiar with. “It was an easy decision to come here,” he said.

Verkaik is returning for his sophomore year in the RFL program. He is taking sociology and cardio cross training. “I have two mentors for my classes, one in sociology and one in cross training,” he said. “They are helpful with my homework.” Verkaik said one of his favorite parts of the RFL program is meeting new mentors and friends.

Independent living and learning

Ready for Life students also take life skills classes with Gilliand that teach them about what it is like to live in the real world, she explained. They learn everything from budgeting their money, how to have appropriate relationships, what to do when they are sick, and much more. “I see many of my students grow more and more independent during their time at Calvin, even during the first year,” said Gilliand.

Kauffman, originally from Bingham Farms, Michigan moved into an apartment with a fellow classmate this year. She said she is enjoying being more independent this year and has made a lot of friends: “I am very social and love to hang out with friends after school.”

Program flourishes in third year

The program has grown significantly in the last few years. “When we started in January 2017, we had only two students, our second year there were five, and now we have 11,” said Gilliand. In addition, the program has become more well-known and supported on campus by students and professors. There are about 65 students who volunteer as mentors for the program, whether they do it in their Calvin class, in their dorm, or are coming to the RFL classroom.

“My students have continued to get involved in more extracurricular activities as well. I have students in Dance Guild, Board Game Guild, Ultimate Frisbee, Running Club, intramurals and Bible studies,” said Gilliand. “I love dancing,” said Kauffman. “I’ve been doing it since I was three years old.” This semester she is excited to be performing along with other RFL students in Dance Guild.

“Amber is a really great teacher,” said Kauffamn. “I’m learning all about reality, and I’ve been focusing on God more.” While she said it is difficult for her to choose just one favorite part of teaching in the RFL classroom, Gilliand does love how well she gets to know each student. “I believe that they trust me well and feel that they can share a lot about themselves. I love seeing them grow and mature into more independent adults. Having them for four years means I really get to know them, love them, and grow close to them.”

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