Sumter Native Helps Found Special Needs Program BY JADE ANDERSON

Sumter native helps found special needs program
The Item

What started out as seeking the best education for one man's daughter has spread into a program that's helping an entire school.

"The amazing thing is how many parents tell us, 'We know this is good for Lucy, but it is helping our children even more,'" said Sumter native Bob Graham. "That's been the real touching part."

Lucy, a daughter of Bob and Susan Graham, has Down syndrome.

"What we've attempted to do with Lucy her entire life is put her in a normal setting with normal people," Graham said. "We felt like that would be the best way to make her as self-sufficient as possible."

The Sumter High graduate raised funds to help found the DeLaSalle Program at Cardinal Newman, a Catholic school in Columbia. The program is named for St. John Baptiste DeLaSalle. DeLaSalle is "the patron saint of teachers, (who) strongly believed that all people, especially the young, have an inherent dignity from being created in the image of God, and that education is the means of developing that inherent dignity," according to the Spring 2012 edition of Cardinal Matters.

The program is modeled on the Options Program at Bishop England, a Catholic school in Charleston. Both schools are in the Diocese of Charleston, which covers the entire state of South Carolina.

"There was no need to reinvent the wheel, and it was so successful down in Charleston," Graham said.

The first class began this fall.

"We are offering a Catholic education that is a fully inclusive education for students with mild intellectual disabilities in the seventh through 12th grades," said Suzy Madden, director of the DeLaSalle Program and a Cardinal Newman alumna. "Kids are integrated completely with their peers through the day."

The three students currently enrolled in the program go to Madden for foreign language and for modification to their assignments and testing. She also helps tutor them in all their work.

"They understand more than most people think," Madden said. "Just because someone has a disability doesn't mean he won't learn. He may not be getting the full extent, but he is definitely learning something. That is what every parent wants."

Students in the program are also invited to participate in extracurricular activities. Lucy is on the junior varsity cheerleading squad.

"She loves it," Graham said. "She absolutely loves it."

The students also have "Friendship Ambassadors" to "practice social skills and develop positive peer relationships," states the issue of Cardinal Matters.

"(About) 100 kids have signed up that they will at different times support kids with special needs," Graham said. "Five or six ninth-grade girls will invite Lucy out to the movies or out for other activities from time to time. It helps a lot from a communication standpoint."

Overall, Madden said, the program is going well so far.

"I can't express what they feel, but by the looks on their faces, they are happier than they've ever been," she said. "They have friends, and they can talk to them. I feel like it's promoting a more accepting and tolerant community. While they are at Cardinal Newman, their peers are learning about people with disabilities. It's a wonderful experience to learn they are more like us than not."

Graham is hoping to see the program grow in time to four students per grade.

"I think it's a good model that can really go anywhere," he said.