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Mar 28, 2013 11:20 AM by Samantha Ptashkin

Project FOCUS gives students with disabilities hope for college

TUCSON - Matt Wall brings a lot of life to The University of Arizona.

The energetic 23-year-old has down syndrome, but that isn't stopping him from going to college.

He's one of 12 former TUSD students right now taking classes through the Department of Education's "Project FOCUS". "We really feel like we're pioneering education," says Phyllis Brodsky, a project coordinator.

Students take a couple classes a semester for two years, then earn a certificate of service learning. "Our two biggest outcomes are employability and self-determination," Brodsky says. "We know based on research that people who have any college education have double the opportunity to be employed."

Each student goes through the process with peer mentors. There are a total of 21 peer mentors and they are all UA undergraduates. "Anything that I would do, like where I want to go to lunch, what do I want to eat, do I study right now, do I do my homework or not, I support the decisions they make," says Peer Mentor Hannah Bohne.

Since September Bohne has worked a lot with Wall and she has watched him grow more independent. Right now he's taking a public health course. "He does a great job of raising his hand and it's a 150-person class," Bohne says. "He's comfortable enough to raise his hand, speak and he has a group that he works with."

It's a post high school education that often seems unattainable for families who have children with disabilities. "So we feel like we're offering back the dream to families and to students that everyone else has always had," Brodsky says.

Wall hopes to one day live on his own and learn how to cook. He also hopes to continue working. Right now he's an employee at Desert Sports and Fitness.

He will be one of five Project FOCUS students walking at the Department of Education graduation ceremony in May.

Project FOCUS is currently at 27 universities across the country. At the UA Brodsky says they hope to eventually have 20 students involved in the program each year.

Donations to Project FOCUS can be made to the June E. Downing Scholarship for Inclusive Education. Contact Stacey M.Turner at (520) 621-7143 or email: smturner@u.arizona.edu

For more information about Project FOCUS: www.projectfocus.arizona.edu/

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