New Day Program Envisioned With ‘Community College-Like Campus’
GURNEE, Ill. — Cameron Olson lasted a single day at one day program. He lasted three days at another.
The 23-year-old Round Lake man with intellectual disability doesn’t have a lot of choices about where he spends his days since he graduated in October 2017 from Laremont School, the Special Education District of Lake County facility for students with severe or multiple disabilities in Gages Lake.
The choices that do exist have long waiting lists and often reject potential clients who have behavioral issues or too many needs, said Liz Pumala, an adapted physical education teacher at Laremont.
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“I started to hate graduations, because I realized these kids aren’t going anywhere,” Pumala said. “They’re going home. … They’re done learning. They’re done growing and thriving, and I just got too sick of it.”
That’s why Pumala wants to open a new center, called Matthias Academy, a “day program on a community college-like campus” in Bristol, Wis., that would serve adults with disabilities, regardless of severity.
She’s created the concept and organized a board of directors. They’ve drawn up bylaws and a business plan. They’ve hired an architect and begun looking at properties. They started fundraising in December and held the first parents’ informational meeting earlier this year.
Just over $246,000 has been raised, according to the nonprofit’s website. Nearly 70 families have set up fundraising pages, including one for Olson.
Pumala’s background at Laremont is a large part of why Olson’s mother, Liz, said they got involved in the project.
Liz Olson said after Cameron turned 22 and graduated from Laremont, he became “super depressed.” She said they subsequently “dug in deep” to make sure he’s engaged during the day, with his siblings taking him to a movie or him accompanying her to the store.
“He’ll ask me about school,” she said. “He’ll ask me about movies. … He’s asking for things. He likes doing things. It makes him happy to do things. When he sits here, he just asks to eat, because that’s the only thing he has control of.”
Pumala envisions a system where students under the age of 30 take two classes a day and also work each day. After they turn 30, they’d become “graduate students” with one class a day and work. At 65, they can choose to semi-retire, can take a class if they want to but will have more leisure time.
She added that the work portion is what will help keep the campus running — helping with custodial operations, working in the bakery and running a campus bookstore. The academy would also facilitate employment opportunities in the community.
The businesslike operations will provide some income, which would help supplement fundraising and the tuition families would pay, she said.
Pumala said she knows the operations will be expensive, but the quality of the staffing and programming is really important to her.
The tuition cost will likely range from $18,000 to $28,000 per year, plus an optional summer program at $2,000 to $3,000, depending on the student’s staff-to-student ratio, according to the website.
“If I could make this free, I would,” Pumala said in a letter to parents. “If I could make this cheaper, I would, but we have seen cheaper. Cheaper is not THE BEST. Paying below average staff minimum wage and providing a place for them to just ‘go.’ We don’t need more cheaper.”
Pumala said she hopes to have Matthias Academy operational by 2020, but that depends on the funding and whether they go with a new building versus rehabbing an existing structure.
© 2019 Lake County News-Sun
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