Since the first arrival of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy who established Luzerne County’s first four-year institution of higher education to improve the lives of the poor through education, Misericordia University has been built on the notion of work with others to improve the community.
During the Agnes flood of 1972, the Back Mountain campus became a haven for those fleeing high waters in the Wyoming Valley, helping over 1,000 evacuees and building a functioning hospital, becoming the site of 52 births when the hospitals in the valley were taken over.
In this spirit of collaboration, the university has several community outreach programs that serve both as a real-world experience for students and as a source of support for those disadvantaged by income, injury, or medical diagnosis. One of them, the Autism Center, recently expanded its reach.
While the center offers several options for people with autism spectrum disorders, center director Janine Starinsky highlighted two. “Our Integrated Studies program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and our Autism for Lifelong Learning (ALL) program to train adults with autism to integrate and function in a autonomous in the community.
Integrated Studies is a 2-year full-time program for students with mild to moderate autism, offering inclusive coursework taken with the rest of the student population, internship and job shadowing opportunities, and seminars to support participation in university life and socialization. Everything is designed “to help them lead an independent life.
“We found in our community that there are support systems from early diagnosis until age 21, and then all services ceased,” Starinsky said. This has been a problem for years, primarily because state law allows students with special needs to pursue public education until age 21, but does not require ongoing support after that. . “We are proud to say that we are the first in the region to offer this program.
“Generally, when a high school student or family member is interested in continuing education, they can register like a traditional student, complete the process online, and then provide the appropriate documents,” Starinsky said. Interviews and assessments are conducted, and the university works with the individual, family, and faculty to determine which courses would meet their preferences and needs.
The program is designed for students with an ASD diagnosis between the ages of 18 and 26, requires 40 to 60 credits and enrolls the student as a full-time, non-degree student with the rights and responsibilities of seeking students. ‘A degree. Program participants have the opportunity to audit courses with other Misericordia students without disabilities, and a post-secondary certificate is provided upon completion.
“What’s unique is that they will have an academic coach hired by Misericordia,” who typically could be a student in the school’s special education program, “or anyone else with a passion for being a defender of this population,” Starinsky said. In addition to a coach, students get academic mentors. “It’s a win-win.”
The university achieved another victory related to the integrated studies program: it obtained the designation of comprehensive transition program from the Ministry of Education. This makes more traditional college financial aid available to participating students. Additional scholarships may be available through Ruby’s Rainbow, O’Neill Tabani Enrichment Fund, and other local and community organizations
The Autism program for lifelong learning has been available for a few years. The primary goal, Starinsky said, is to help adults obtain employment to the fullest extent of each person’s ability and to provide school-based transition services. The ALL program operates as a provider for the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), the Office of Developmental Programs, and the Office of Autism Services.
It may seem like a lot of alphabet soup, but it boils down to the fact that people enter the ALL program through a recommendation from the OVR. The person referred goes through an admissions process to assess “needs, likes and availability,” Starinsky said. “With our corporate connections, we would then contact the companies and they would do a typical job interview with our coordinator.” She noted that participants worked at Rodano Restaurant, Gerrity Supermarket, Wags Indoor Dog Park and Weis Markets, among others.
The participant is helped by a job coach, and Starinsky is quick to point out “we are always looking for job coaches”. Interested persons should apply to the university.
The ALL program is funded by the OVR, so there is no cost to students, but participation is limited by the money available. The integrated study program, on the other hand, is paid for by the student. Which means that there is currently no limit to the number of those who can register.
The Autism Center’s efforts don’t stop there, of course. There’s also the Best Buddies Club, a chapter of an international nonprofit created in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver to pair volunteers with autistic people for two years. And the university offers extracurricular activities in the center, including art sessions, swimming lessons, support group meetings, reading programs, and more.
The Center is under the direction of the College of Health Sciences and Education, Dr. Barbara Schwartz-Bechet, Dean. It is one of the Collaborative Autism Centers of Excellence generously funded by the AllOne Foundation created when Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania merged with Highmark Health. The departments of the university collaborate on some of the offerings including the Department of Social Work, Department of Aquatics, Department of Occupational Therapy, Physiotherapy and Speech Therapy and others. And it collaborates with other advocacy groups in the region.
“We are working to provide support to as many students as possible who show interest,” Starinsky said. “We are here to serve the community.
Contact Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish