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 Project Reach: In Their Own Words 

From Community College Times
March 30, 2007
Click here to download a PDF version of this article.


Project Reach: Service Inclusion for Community College Students is a three-year, $1.35 million American Association of Community Colleges program designed to develop service learning opportunities for students with disabilities to explore potential careers, build employment skills and enhance personal development.

Below are two personal accounts from two community college students participating in Project Reach.

Since January 2006, eight community colleges in the initiative have received awards of up to $47,000 for three years. The colleges recruit and train faculty to use service learning as a teaching strategy in their classrooms and also develop partnerships with community agencies that serve as placement sites for student service.

The Project Reach colleges are: Brevard Community College (Florida), Edmonds Community College (Washington), El Camino Community College (California), Henderson Community College (Kentucky), Miami Dade College (Florida), Minneapolis Community & Technical College (Minnesota), National Park Community College (Arkansas), and Prairie State College (Illinois). The colleges are being assisted by peer mentors from Gadsden State Community College (Alabama), Glendale Community College (California), Meridian Community College (Mississippi) and Paradise Valley Community College (Arizona).

The program is funded through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service and its Engaging Persons with Disabilities, New Special Initiatives Program.

For more information, visit the Project Reach Page.

Wheelchair Basketball Scores Big Points
By Mitzellah Ah-Fook

In the fall 2005 I took a research writing class at Edmonds Community College (Washington) that required eight hours of service and a research proposal that would provide value to potential community partners.

I chose to investigate the benefits and requirements for establishing a wheelchair basketball club at the college. I interviewed a chair user and athlete at heart, my husband, Gerard Ah-Fook. Playing wheelchair basketball with my husband gave me a real opportunity to play face-to-face in a fun and competitive sport.

While working on the research project, Thomas Murphy, chair of the department of anthropology at Edmonds, asked me to help prepare a grant proposal to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) for the Project Reach initiative, an effort to involve more students with disabilities in service learning. My desire to create a wheelchair basketball club became part of the college’s participation in Project Reach.

Last year, I recruited students to help charter a wheelchair basketball club, the Rolling Tritons. At first, Gerard was the only chair user on the team. The other participants were “ABs” (able-bodied), a term chair users use. As word spread, chair users showed interest; some even traveled two hours to make our weekly practices.

After I graduated, Gerard transferred to Edmonds from Cascadia Community College and took over the club. Continued support from AACC and additional grants from Washington Campus Compact enabled Gerard and me to register our club with the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Meanwhile, I joined Washington Campus Compact’s Retention Project as a full-time AmeriCorps member. This position allowed Gerard and me to participate in a coaching clinic at Douglas Community College in British Columbia, where Mike Frogley, one of the most outstanding wheelchair basketball coaches from the University of Illinois, led the program.

In March, our team competed in tournaments in Las Vegas and at the University of Missouri-Columbia. It did not come home with any wins, but the players carried with them their confidence and a new hope of becoming a stronger team for the 2008 season. The other teams recognized the talent and determination of the team by selecting Jerry Mitchell, a club member, for the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award and Gerard for the Sportsmanship Award.

Helping form a wheelchair basketball club allowed me to get people involved in ways I never imagined. As long as these guys have one another, it makes it easier to laugh about their own abilities and the quirks in life that come along with them. The mentoring that they provide for younger players and youth in our community provides hope, encouragement and role models for other chair users. Our next step is to strengthen our mentoring program and recruit people with all types of abilities, which would not only strengthen the team as an entity, but also would spread the word about the sport and opportunity.

-- Ah-Fook is a recent graduate of Edmonds Community College (Washington) and winner of the 2006 Howard Swearer Student Humanitarian Award for outstanding public service from Campus Compact.

Using Life's Simple Pleasures to Relax
By Jill Wright

The nursing program at Minneapolis Community & Technical College (Minnesota) had recently included a new requirement for graduation: service learning. A class I enrolled in as second-semester nursing student—Complementary Therapies—included a service learning component.

One of our assignments for the semester was to work at a local nursing facility that used some of the concepts we learned in class. Afterward, we were to write a paper about our experiences.

Having previously worked as a sign language interpreter, I was familiar with a nursing home in the area where I thought I could use my skills, so I decided to work on my assignment there.

However, when I started my assignment, I learned that many of the home’s deaf services had been moved to other agencies, and the staff needed me to work in other areas. I was disappointed, but they knew best where I could be of service.

I was partnered with the horticulture therapist. I had no experience in this area, but I gave it a try. My first few days were spent outside cleaning gardens, raking leaves, weeding and preparing flowers for the winter. The therapist would often encourage me to smell weeds. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she would ask. Strangely, I did find the scents relaxing and invigorating. With my own disabilities, depression and anxiety, I could see the benefits of fragrance on the senses.

The therapist also would point out the colors and the various shapes of leaves. It was strange that I was doing all this work, and yet my mind was calm and relaxed. I was getting my hours in, but I was unsure of my purpose. I was told we would be working with residents in the Alzheimer’s disease unit, but I had not been there yet.\

On my second day we headed up to the Alzheimer’s and dementia unit. When we arrived, the therapist introduced me to several clients, identifying their conditions and providing helpful tips in communicating with them. To my surprise, one patient came toward me and we immediately recognized each other. She was a hearing-impaired woman for whom I had interpreted for many years before.

Noticing the connection, the therapist said we should take her and a few other residents outside. Apparently, the only communication she had was an occasional visit from the interpreter. None of the staff could sign and her interpreter visits were few and far between.

We went to the first floor, toward the doors to go outside. “Watch their expressions change when we open the door,” the therapist said to me.

As the door opened and the fresh, cool air swept across their faces, a sense of peace and relaxation appeared. Their eyes shut and they tilted their heads back, reopening their minds to the world they once knew. As we pushed the wheelchairs out into the sun, they again basked in the warmth.

At that moment, I understood my purpose there. For the next several hours we brought residents in and out. They held different textured leaves in their hands and smelled various flowers and herbs. They listened to the birds sing and visited in their own quiet way. I interpreted everything around us to my friend. The therapist was excited to engage the resident in conversation about the environment.

I have incorporated many of my service learning experiences into my personal life and as a nursing student. I now have a great respect for the role of therapeutic recreation for patients. I have even started my own garden.

My service learning experience has taught me it is important to not only stop and smell the roses, but to pick one, smell it, hold it, share it, talk about it and remember there is no other exactly like it. Just like my time there.

-- Wright is graduating in May from the nursing program at Minneapolis Community & Technical College (Minnesota). She continues to support service learning through involvement in Project Reach on her campus.


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