St. Vincent College's Bearcat BEST program eases disabled students' transition
Nick Popovich, a member of the equestrian club at St. Vincent College, enjoys interacting with other students on the Unity campus as a part of the Bearcat BEST program.
“It's really perfect because I like to see new people,” said Popovich, 18, of Export, one of 11 students participating in the new transition program for 18- to 21-year-olds with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Rev. Philip Kanfush, professor of special education at St. Vincent, developed the program after requests from parents.
Bearcat BEST, which stands for “Building Excellence through Skills Training,” allows students to be on the college's Unity campus with other similarly aged young adults, he said.
“Their peers have moved on (to college), but now so have they,” Kanfush said, adding that similar programs exist at Clairview School and Clelian Heights. “It's not for every kid, but the benefit is that these kids are on a college campus.”
The students — eight men and three women — begin and end their day at the Bearcat Center, formerly the Gristmill Coffeehouse.
The center includes a kitchen, laundry facilities, lockers and computers. Students study core subjects such as math, writing and literature in the mornings during the week, with other days spent on real-world measurements including money and time. Afternoons are spent on employment and independent living skills.
The students agreed on house rules, including “help one another” and “try your best” and complete jobs every day, such as maintaining the calendar and announcing activities.
Leann Downs, special education teacher, said the program's biggest benefit comes at lunch, when Bearcat BEST students eat in the dining hall with St. Vincent undergraduates.
“Within their first week, they were already expanding their horizons,” she said. “They were not only sitting with their classmates, but making friends with the other college population, so it was nice.”
Like many of the Bearcat BEST students, Popovich participates in campus groups.
He's taking riding lessons with the equestrian club and helping with the activities planning board.
Five St. Vincent undergrads have been working with Bearcat BEST staff, which includes two full-time special education teachers and a full-time classroom aide.
“It's not just them learning, but I'm truly learning myself,” said Krista Gibbon of Indiana, a junior at St. Vincent studying early and special education. “Just working with them each day is really enjoyable.”
Philip Pisone, special education teacher, said the undergrads have welcomed the Bearcat BEST students, who are able to attend sporting events, lectures and concerts on campus.
“The benefit goes beyond just our student population; the whole St. Vincent population is getting exposure to the kids and to have an experience they're not familiar with,” he said.
All the while, Pisone said, the students are showing growth in the program's four areas of study: academics, social skills, independent living and job experience.
Bearcat BEST students have practiced mock job interviews and activities to promote communication skills.
The students participated in Special Olympics and have taken community service field trips to places such as the Westmoreland County Food Bank.
Amy Hildebrand, classroom aide, said the program helped give the Bearcat BEST students a sense of belonging.
“It is more than I ever thought this could be,” she said. “It is so great to see the students being accepted in a community that they never thought they'd have a chance to be a part of.”