The Ottumwa Courier

August 22, 2013

Pella student able to find his special niche

By Amy Holmquist The Chronicle
The Pella Chronicle

---- — John and Teresa Rietveld knew autism wasn’t going to hold back their son, Lucas, after high school. They just didn’t know what his future held in society as a new high school grad.

A specialized University of Iowa program for students with disabilities was just the answer. Born prematurely and later diagnosed with Autism, Lucas thrived in the local schools in Pella and is much loved by his classmates, teachers and staff. As a 2013 graduate, he’s excited to start a new life chapter and adventure just like the rest of his classmates through a program at University of Iowa called REACH.

The program is perfect for Lucas, according to his family. The REACH program, standing for Realizing Educational and Career Hopes, is a two-year program at the school that allows students with learning disabilities to learn applicable life skills while still being immersed in the culture of the school. Lucas will live in the dorms and go to classes, but his classes will be centered around curriculum that will teach him how to live life on his own.

“The courses teach applicable life skills. I feel the whole person is integrated, it’s social and it’s educational,” Teresa commented.

Overall, only 50 students can be enrolled in the program at a time and acceptance is very competitive. The application process was intricate and not only the Rietvelds but Lucas’ teacher, Lisa Witzenburg, spent a lot of time working on the application process.

“I felt like I was helping him apply for an Ivy League School!” Teresa commented.

After a completed application and lengthy interviews with both Lucas and his parents, Lucas was accepted into the program. He met his roommate, who is also a REACH student.

The program is a certificate program as opposed to an earned degree, but the program is built toward teaching students, like Lucas, skills that will help them thrive in society. Lucas will be enrolled in classes like Life Skills, Computers and Technology and Money Management. He will have the opportunity to learn in a small group environment with personal advising and a very hands-on approach.

“It’s a certificate, not a degree,” Teresa added,”Yet I feel it’s just as crucial or more crucial than a degree because of the extra assistance and guidance and experiences Luke will have.”

For the first two years, Lucas will live in the dorms with the traditional students, and will have an additional Resident Assistant for just REACH students on his floor. The third year is optional and will allow students to live off campus in an apartment but still have support. Staff and students working in the program will be available 24/7 to assist Lucas whenever help is needed. What greatly impressed the Rietvelds is the staff and mentors in the REACH programs are actually individuals who are working toward a degree in the special education field.

“One thing that I think is neat is that a lot of the mentors or students working in the REACH program want to go into the field of working with special education. They really want to be into it, because that’s what they want to make their life career out of,” John said.

It’s a great opportunity for Lucas and his family is ecstatic about finding the perfect college fit for him. The REACH program gives Lucas the opportunity to attend a Big Ten University while helping him advance in his life. When the program was founded in 2008, REACH was one of the first programs of its kind in a popular, public university.

Furthermore, The REACH program also assists students in transitioning into careers after the program, so students are easily transitioned from college life to the working life.

“For Lucas and us as parents, and Molly his sister, I think this is a dream come true, truly. As Lucas put it, it’s an answer to prayers,” Teresa commented.

Although Lucas is University of Northern Iowa’s biggest sports fan, Lucas is excited to head off to college and root for the Hawkeyes. He has his season pass purchased.

“Football is my favorite sport, so I’m excited to go to games. I’m going to be very happy about going to college, meeting new people and new teachers,” Lucas said.

Lucas heads off to college late August and although his family will be sad to have him an hour and a half away, they are excited that they have this opportunity.

“I’m very excited for Lucas. I’m thrilled for Lucas, however, I’m going to miss him dearly. Lucas is a very sweet kid, very kind, very helpful and a joy to have around,” Teresa said.

The REACH program is privately funded and is a great financial commitment for parents. If you wish to contribute to the REACH fund, you can do so by going online at www2.education.uiowa.edu/services/reach/. All gifts go toward providing the two-year program to students with multiple learning disabilities.