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Local students with disabilities spend summer living on campus for college prep

“This has been eye-opening and life-changing,” said 21-year-old Elijah Shaffer of Toledo as he waits patiently in his wheelchair for the elevator at Horton International House, a residence hall on The University of Toledo Main Campus.

He is one of nine local students with disabilities, most still in high school, spending five weeks this summer living on campus and working at local companies and organizations as part of an Ability Center of Greater Toledo program designed to prepare them for college, provide them with job experience, and boost their independence.

Waiting outside the Horton International House for the bus to take them to work, were, from left, 17-year-old Alex Bentley of Perrysburg, 19-year-old Zach Cotton of Galion, 17-year-old Donny Stewart of Sylvania, 21-year-old Elijah Shaffer of Toledo, and 18-year-old Ana McGuire of Sylvania.

“I was so nervous,” said 18-year-old Ana McGuire, who will be a senior at Northview High School in Sylvania in the fall and uses a cochlear implant to hear and American Sign Language. “This is the first time I’ve been away from my family for a long period of time.”

McGuire spends her days working with children at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Family Center. In the evenings, she does her own cooking, cleaning and laundry at International House.

The Ability Center provides staff that serve the role of a resident supervisor. They stay in the residence hall suites with the students to provide supervision and any accommodations needed related to their disability.

Donny Stewart read a book while waiting for the bus to take him to work at the Toledo Museum of Art. Stewart lives with autism and will be a senior at Central Catholic High School in Toledo in the fall.

“The other night I made spaghetti and meatballs,” said Donny Stewart, a 17-year-old living with autism who will be a senior at Central Catholic High School in the fall. “I’m learning to live with other people, be more responsible, and make sure I have clean clothes. Mom is not here to do it for me.”

This marks the second year of the Next Steps Summer Program, a component of The Ability Center of Greater Toledo’s Life Skills Department and comprised of community partners.

“The Toledo Museum of Art participates in the Next Steps Summer Program because, as an employer in the community, it’s our responsibility to help all people acquire the necessary skills to become gainfully employed,” Siccorah Martin, human resources manager at the Toledo Museum of Art, said.

Ana McGuire, center, worked with children at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Family Center. McGuire, who will be a senior at Northview High School in the fall, uses a cochlear implant to hear and American Sign Language.

17-year-old Alex Bentley of Perrysburg works at the Toledo Area Humane Society walking and cleaning dogs and cats.

“This experience is awesome,” said Bentley, who lives with Williams syndrome and has had a stroke. “Making new friends is the best part. We’ve gone to Dave & Buster’s, out for ice cream, and next we’re attending a Mud Hens game together.”

“I’ve learned a lot about myself and the people around me,” said Shaffer, a student at Herzing University. “I got to show my true colors.”

Shaffer started experiencing symptoms of cerebral palsy at the age of 3 and uses a wheelchair for long distances. The Rogers High School graduate has a limited range of motion and goes to physical therapy to strengthen his legs.

For employment experience as part of the program, Shaffer works at Preferred Properties, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities buy homes.

“I’m really enjoying my summer here and also giving back to people like me,” Shaffer said. “It’s incredible to live in a residence hall with a roommate just like my friends. I feel better about myself. Coming here raised the bar for me.”

The program ends Thursday, Aug. 10.

“Our goal is to impact the students now and prepare them for the future as they enter the workforce,” said Mallory Tarr, marketing coordinator for The Ability Center of Northwest Ohio. “We encourage our students to think outside the box and explore what is possible. Our hope is that students will build on their increased feelings of confidence and continue that momentum into the next phase of their life.”