An Alternative for People with Leaning Disabilities
Have you ever known anyone who was diagnosed with a learning disability…but who seemed to have difficulty with more than just math and reading? Have you known someone who had extraordinary trouble getting organized, managing money, keeping a job, or maintaining friendships?
Minnesota Life College (MLC) is a college-like apartment living program for young people who face some of the above issues and who need an intermediate level of support. They are not able to manage traditional college programs, and yet they do not need the extensive, continuing, and constant support which is provided those with more severe disabilities. One mother said, “When our daughter was in a regular college, it was ‘sink or swim;’ here at Minnesota Life College there are life-preservers.”
About ten years ago, Beverly and Roe Hatlen (the founders of MLC) researched post-secondary programs all over the country to find an appropriate one for their son. He ultimately attended two on the east coast, and all the while Beverly wondered why there was nothing within 1000 miles of Minneapolis. As she observed her son and his peers, Beverly, as former public health nurse, had a revelation: these students had problems similar to those of many welfare clients she had served back in the 60s-before the term “Learning Disabilities” had even been coined-and she started to view them as a population at risk for everything negative in the poverty cycle because they end up unemployed or underemployed.
“As a parent, I envisioned young adults with learning disabilities having the same opportunities that we take for granted with our other children: to be part of a college-like community, to have several years to mature and to learn social and independent living skills, to discover their abilities and strengths, to participate in meaningful job exploration, to focus on physical and emotional wellness, and to have fun and make lifelong friends.” Beverly said
Thus, MLC was born. It incorporated as a nonprofit in 1995 and, after a year of planning by its expert Board of Directors, opened its doors to students in the fall of 1996. Now in its fourth year, MLC has 17 students, five graduates…and the word is getting out: it is averaging several calls a day from interested parents and professionals.
Students must be 18 years of age or older and have a documented diagnosis of a learning disability or related condition such as attention deficit disorder. Again, MLC was designed to fill an unmet need and to serve young adults who typically have not been eligible for services.
The hallmark characteristic of these young adults is ‘no friends.’ One mother said, “We enrolled our daughter at MLC for the friendships! I will never forget seeing her run from apartment to apartment where she had friends…it was the biggest thrill of my life.”
The student apartments, classrooms, student center, and offices are located in Richfield, Minnesota within walking distance of bus lines, shopping, jobs, parks, and recreation. Students move through three phases of the program at their own pace–generally for three years:
Core Phase: During the initial one- to two-year period, students are assessed in academics, independent living skills, and vocational aptitudes and interests-and then helped in developing Individual Determination Plans (IDPs) which build on skills and abilities.
Minnesota Life College believes in helping students create new behaviors through the development of positive habits-in everything from fitness and nutrition, to practicing good decision-making, to role-playing self- advocacy in relationships or on the job.
MLC’s accountability is unparalleled: there is objective tracking of the hundreds of tasks that have been deemed necessary for independent living, and students cannot move on until they have demonstrated they can apply the learning of those tasks in their real lives.
Transition Phase: During this year, students remain “campus” residents while focusing on direct employment or post-secondary experiences and demonstrating the proficiencies necessary to live and work independently. They continue as active participants in school classes, activities, and recreation and receive support and instruction from staff.
Outreach Phase: This is an option that was not available to this niche of students before Minnesota Life College opened its doors. Student graduates and their parents are able to select and purchase services such as job coaching, career exploration, recreation and social activities, and case management for as long as they are needed.
The major start-up funding has been provided by Buffets, Inc. (Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet Restaurants) and the Hatlen Foundation. Other Founding Partners-businesses and individuals-have made significant gifts which have provided for operating costs.
Staff-intensive programs are expensive to run and MLC actively seeks state, county, school district and grant monies to ensure accessibility to financially disadvantaged families. Each student must pay tuition and board and room costs, but families may apply for scholarship help if they are financially eligible.
Also, parents are cautioned not to sign away their children’s rights to further education. State and Federal laws entitle young adults to additional services and funding until the age of 22 if they complete high school with unmet transition goals and do not accept official diplomas. Such students may participate in graduation ceremonies and accept unofficial diplomas without losing their rights. One-third of MLC students receive school district support under these conditions.
Last June, E. and A. were among those in the first graduating class at MLC. As part of his MLC training, E. attended a technical training course and is now happily employed as a Laboratory Technician. By graduation, E. had already received a pay raise and was contemplating a move to an even more challenging position. A. worked diligently and earned a position as Mail Clerk with a large downtown firm. Since starting her new job, she has received promotions and pay raises.
Both E. and A. have met their career goals, which included jobs with full benefits. This enables them to live independently, while still staying connected to MLC through the Outreach Program. These two students believe that MLC has made a big difference in their lives.
Another student says, “I’m learning ways to be independent. I hope to not always be dependent on others. I’m learning how to do things, handle problems and get around. MLC has taught me how to get along with my roommates and others. Living in the apartments really helps me to understand what it’s like to be on my own.”
The student-to-staff ratio is presently 2:1. The Executive Director, Steve Schumacher, has 15 years experience in the Vocational Rehabilitation field and a Master’s in Nonprofit Administration. Other staff include a licensed psychologist, a licensed learning disabilities teacher, and licensed, experienced staff from other related disciplines.