Cardon Center accents possibilities, not disabilities
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the August 2021 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
Emma Cardon wanted to go to law school. She wanted to be a judge. And now, she dreams of the theatre.
She talks excitedly about the time she played teacher, printing out 20 pages of math, spelling, reading and writing for the neighborhood children, then grading all their work.
“Even after she graduated from high school, we would sometimes go to church and Emma would bring workbooks. She would work on math problems herself,” said her dad. “She said, ‘I want to get better,’ which was impressive to me because she’s not doing it for anyone else at that point. It’s totally for her.”
Emma simply wants to be that girl who impacts the world, and she might just get there with the help of the new L.O.P.E.S. Academy at the Cardon Center. It is the place where individuals with moderate intellectual and developmental disabilities, like Emma, will get to experience college on the Grand Canyon University campus.
The venture could not have happened without Emma’s parents, Don and Kim Cardon, principals of the Cardon Development Group.
The L.O.P.E.S. Academy might not have happened, either, without GCU.
In 2011, when Don Cardon was the Director of the Arizona Commerce Authority, he would appear on the same radio shows with GCU President Brian Mueller.
“He and I would speak on subjects of entrepreneurship, and I was always really impressed with Brian and just the vision he had for pretty much everything he gets involved in,” said Cardon.
So when Emma started envisioning a future for herself after high school, and her parents continued to dream those big dreams right alongside her, he thought of GCU. He wanted to partner with the University and remove the barriers that would prevent individuals with intellectual disabilities from going to college.
Ask Cardon what inspired him and his wife to create the L.O.P.E.S. Academy (it stands for Learning Opportunities for Participation and Engagement in School), and he said they simply followed their daughter’s lead.
“Emma started it with just a desire,” he said. “She has always been a very high-functioning young lady and always had aspirations. There are all kinds of different things she has a desire to do.
“It saddened us a little bit that the opportunities for Emma to experience what her brothers were doing or what others were doing were not there, so we were motivated to try to see if there might be options.”
Emma will be among the first 10 students in the L.O.P.E.S. Academy, a two-year venture for those enrolled in the program.
They will attend an hourlong class two days a week in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, home to the academy and the Cardon Center, a space that serves as a student gathering area.
And they’ll be accompanied by their L.O.P.E.S. Buddy, a GCU student who is by their side for campus activities, from Chapel to basketball games.
Each course spans seven weeks, with L.O.P.E.S. Academy students completing two courses per semester. Part of the lineup: L.O.P.E.S. University Success, Communication and Social Skills, and Finding Your Purpose Through a Christian Worldview. They’re classes that will sound familiar to GCU students – they take the same courses, though not in the modified way a L.O.P.E.S. Academy enrollee would.
The L.O.P.E.S. Academy experience will culminate, as it does for many GCU students, with an internship.
It was important to the Cardons that students in the program get an authentic college experience.
“We don’t want to just do something where it’s like, ‘OK, let’s do a new approach to life skills’ — not that we’re discounting life skills.
But Emma doesn’t necessarily want to go to school and learn about counting money. She wants to do what everyone else (attending college) wants to do,” he said.
Dr. Sherman Elliott, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said the L.O.P.E.S. Academy isn’t the only program of its kind. But it is unique in its focus on job development.
“We want these individuals to enhance the quality of their life by becoming more independent and by having what every young person strives for — a very meaningful job,” he said.
What’s also unique: GCU’s Christian perspective.
“GCU, of all universities, should be the steward of this program because we live out the Gospels in action. To be true and faithful to the Gospels means to uphold the dignity of the human person,” he said. “These special and unique individuals need to be given as much support and as many opportunities as everyone else. In the end, it is what we are called to do at GCU.”
For Cardon, that Christian perspective, and its entrepreneurial culture, made GCU the right place for the L.O.P.E.S. Academy.
It didn’t hurt that his daughter thought so, too: “It was like my dream college, going to GCU,” said Emma, whose latest dream is to perform onstage.
Her dad talks about the impromptu concerts she would perform for neighbors.
“She would get her little speaker and she would go out there and the whole neighborhood would just come over.”
“I had 20 people,” said Emma, who recently nailed the role of Wendy in a production of “Peter Pan.”
On a recent campus tour, GCU presented her with the one thing all aspiring college students wait for: her college acceptance letter.
It signaled the beginning of that college experience that Emma, and her parents right alongside her, have dreamed of having.
“As Christians, we totally believe that we’re all created in God’s image. This population has gifts and talents and a calling,” Kim Cardon said. “I think just having a heart to create a place like this, it makes me emotional.”
And it makes her joyful, too.
“Knowing Emma, she’s ready to take the world by the tail.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.