VUnited seeks to include students with intellectual disabilities

Caroline Foley

After hearing about a fully inclusive academic program with students with intellectual disabilities at Syracuse University, Amelia Gabor ’20 Biology and Morgan Sturgis ’17 spent months figuring out how to replicate the mission of InclusiveU at the University. They met with off-campus partners, matched Villanova mentors with students, selected subject material and faculty and began designing the program. 

The result, VUnited, is a six-week life skills program for local students with intellectual disabilities.

“My favorite part of VUnited is seeing our students have that ‘aha’ moment,” Gabor said. “I’ll watch them work through a concept, and then all of a sudden, I’ll see a lightbulb go off when the students really understand it. Seeing the empowerment that accompanies their understanding is absolutely incredible.”

As co-founders, co-directors, teachers and mentors, Gabor and Sturgis welcome students every Saturday morning in the ICE Center on campus. The six-week programconsists of an introduction week, four weeks of instruction and a final week when students present to their peers and family. Workshops include Basic Money and Math, Health and Nutrition, Grocery Shopping and Meal Preparation, Internet/Social Media Safety, Job Applications and Public Speaking. VUnited has invited speakers such as professors from VSB, Health Athletes from Special Olympics Committee, Chef Edler from Dining Services, Marybeth Avioli from Student Life and Susanne Donovan from the Career Center. In other weeks, University students have run “Station Nation” in which activities and lessons illustrate “Wants versus Needs,” healthy fun facts or cooking lessons.

“The mission of VUnited is to truly embody Villanova’s core value ‘unitas’ by encompassing a college experience, with both academic and social facets, for our friends with different abilities,” Sturgis said. “Professionally, this program is designed to develop student independence, job reputability and life skills. Personally, this program promotes friendships and celebration of inherent human dignity, access to education and fun.”

Back in September, Sturgis and Gabor discussed their shared passion of Special Olympics and Villanova’s Disability Services.

“I shared my story that fuels my fervor every day: my friend and Special Olympics star, David Miller, dreams of being a Villanova student,” Sturgis recalled. “I struggle to grapple with the idea that I’m here to pursue my dreams and feel he should be able to do the same.”

Gabor, on the other hand, received phone calls from her friend at InclusiveU every day.

“The positive impact that InclusiveU was having on Harry made me want to do something like that at Villanova,” she said.

Together, Gabor and Sturgis met with InclusiveU directors, established a curriculum, recruited teachers, mentors and volunteers and brought a proposal to Steve McWilliams, PhD, Director of Disability Services and Gregory Hannah, Assistant Director of Disability Services.

“The program has a unique focus, and this idea is another huge step in the ongoing evolution of Villanova becoming a truly inclusive community,” Dr. McWilliams said. “The VU student volunteers have responded to the VUnited students with their usual openness, kindness and infectious enthusiasm.”