GCU embraces LOPES Academy participants during campus internships

Lopes Academy interns Chase Baird (left) and Matthew Adams hang T-shirts at the Lope Shop Distribution Center.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the April issue of GCU Magazine. Read the digital version here.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Surrounded by multileveled racks of Grand Canyon University T-shirts, intern Chase Baird focuses on just one shirt, decidedly and gingerly hanging it on the lowest rack before reaching for another and doing the same.

He’s quiet.

He’s intent.

Baird, who’s part of GCU’s LOPES Academy for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is lost in his work at the Lope Shop Distribution Center, a warehouse packed with University branded T-shirts, mugs, throw blankets and other merchandise.

Then it’s time for a break, when his inseparable best-buddy-since-the-cradle and fellow LOPES Academy learner, Matthew Adams, gives his assessment of his and Baird’s job at the distribution center.

Adams says, turning to Baird, “What I like most is it’s fun working with THIS guy, my coworkers and my boss, Sean. He’s an amazing guy, and Abby, who’s nice. She’s working hard.

“We have a lot of fun at work.”

That includes their time on the Athletic Departments’ Street Team, when they pass out flyers after Chapel, sometimes dancing to a Harry Styles hit or breaking out a rap, like they do with their group, the Hip Hop Homies.

Business information systems sophomore Riley Ramcke, Baird’s LOPES Academy Buddy — a GCU student who’s a support partner for program participants — has class right before heading to the distribution center, but “I’m always just thinking, I’m just excited to get out of class to go hang out with these guys because they’re so fun to hang out with. Watching them grow has been amazing.

“Chase, especially, being able to watch him … to fully be competent in this position and do really good work and be helpful around here, it’s really cool to see.”

LOPES Academy Program Manager Allison Mancinelli Kolanko works with Emma Cardon and Alexa Herriman on preparing a resume.

They are just two of nine learners at the LOPES Academy at the Cardon Center, housed in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who embarked this semester on a major part of the two-year program: their internships.

Besides working at the Lope Shop, those participants — they will be the first to complete the program this spring — intern nine hours a week at the Sodexo-run Chaparral Hall Lopes Mart convenience store, at the Honors College and for the Athletics Department. They also attend an internship class to talk about topics such as resumés and organizational charts.

The initiative, which got its start with support from benefactors Don and Kim Cardon, is designed so participants can experience a college environment at a Christian university. They take courses developed for the program and experience everything from the hype of basketball games to Chapel to playing video games at GCU Esports Arena.

But the program is also designed with jobs in mind.

“From the beginning, we wanted to make this something where participants had the opportunity to explore employment,” said LOPES Academy Program Manager Allison Mancinelli Kolanko.

She has been aiming toward this phase of the program since its 2021 debut.

“We worked toward the angle of professionalism and workforce development skills,” she said, in courses such as communication and leadership.

Mancinelli Kolanko worked with the neurodiverse population before coming to GCU and has seen firsthand the obstacles they often face in getting a job.

“There’s such a high unemployment rate for the neurodiverse population,” said Mancinelli Kolanko, with unemployment for neurodivergent adults runs at least as high as 30%-40%, which is three times the rate for people with disability and eight times the rate for people without disability, according to the University of Connecticut’s Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation.

“I get so passionate about it because I think everyone deserves a chance to work. I’m of the belief everyone is capable of employment to some capacity.”

Mancinelli Kolanko has been involved with all types of employment models, including group-supported employment, in which job coaching is provided to a group of neurodiverse people working at the same place.

But for the LOPES Academy, she was intent on fostering independence.

She wanted the program to provide short-term, supported internships on the GCU campus. That involves guiding interns heavily at first, then gradually phasing out that assistance to increase independence.

Jaden Lowery splits time working at both the Lope Shop and the Lope Mart in Chaparral Hall.

The process started with the intentional, job-focused courses they took in the first year and taking advantage of “little moments” to teach, say job etiquette, and culminated with the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Senior Showcase.

LOPES Academy students presented projects that focused on their career assessment inventories and the research they did on the jobs they’d like to have.

It also meant recruiting a community that would embrace them.

“GCU is such a safe community to explore those options,” said Courtney Patton, LOPES Academy coordinator.

Last summer, Mancinelli Kolanko and Patton started building a relationship with Sodexo, which provides food services for GCU, and reached out to strategically chosen departments based on what they knew of the LOPES Academy participants’ skills and job aspirations.

Vicky Richardson stocks items while working at the Lope Shop as part of her LOPES Academy internship.

They wanted to see what was possible.

That meant months of follow-up meetings with those departments, site visits so participants could experience various working environments firsthand, meetings with the learners’ families and, after internships were solidified, simulated job interviews so managers could outline job duties, such as appropriate workwear and when to take breaks.

At the interviews, participants also advocated for themselves so employers could provide tools to help them be successful.

“All the departments have been so wonderful and supportive,” said Mancinelli Kolanko of the team effort to craft these internships.

“That is something really important in the field of employment in neurodiversity: Collaborating and raising awareness. They were able to think of positions with everyone’s input and creatively talk through it.”

Positions were offered not just at the Lope Shop but at the Honors College, where LOPES Academy intern Alexa Herriman folds T-shirts for swag boxes mailed to the incoming freshmen accepted into the college. Ray Chiago, also from the LOPES Academy, sits next to her preparing lanyards.

At the Chaparral Lopes Mart convenience store, Chiago and Jaden Lowery, dressed for success in his Lopes-branded shirt and headband, unload delivery trucks and stock shelves.

“They did mention to us that Sodexo at GCU is the first university to inquire about internships in Arizona, so it’s really exciting,” Mancinelli Kolanko said.

Lowery and Chiago are two of seven LOPES Academy participants working two different jobs in hybrid internships.

Mancinelli Kolanko emphasized that, “We really tried to individualize the process based on what you’re interested in, your skillset and where you’d like to be working.”

Another example of the hybrid approach is the LOPES Academy’s Lindsey Eaton. Program leaders knew she wanted more independence, so Eaton works two jobs in the Athletics Department, doing data entry that complements her computer skills, and checking in student-athletes for study hall.

Kyle Bragelman talks about his experiences working at the Lope Shop as part of his LOPES Academy internship.

At the Lope Shop, the LOPES Academy’s Kyle Bragelman is in a back room folding hoodies like a pro, creasing back the sleeves, halving the garment, then tucking part of it into the hood.

He also bags merchandise at the register and keys open the dressing room for customers.

“One of the most important things about this job is making sure you greet people when they come in,” said the chatty Bragelman, who invites you into conversations about DC and Marvel Comics in between telling you about his past jobs at Fry’s, a tortilla factory and bakery.

“Make sure you smile, bro!” said his LOPES Academy bestie, Jaden Lowery, unleashing a big smile as he makes his way to the Lope Shop floor, where interns Emma Cardon and Vicky Richardson tackle other tasks.

Cardon is placing size tags — small, medium, large — on hangers missing them, though her favorite job is the “The Pick List,” in which she places merchandise back on the floor. “It’s kind of calming,” she says.

“We really wanted to partner with the LOPES Academy because it’s such a cool program,” said Garrett Miller, Lope Shop Operations Manager. The retailer saw the internships as a way to give the learners enrichment experiences to enhance their resumes.

Jamie Hickman, Sodexo Senior Supervisor, said it’s a partnership that benefits both sides: “It’s a good experience for them, and also for us, to get to work with them,” he said.

They see the possibilities Mancinelli Kolanko sees.

“It’s been a lot of fun having them here,” Miller said. … They have been killing it. They’re all so hard working. They just picked up everything so quickly and learned so fast, now they’re masters. I barely have to tell them what to do. Their initiative has been awesome.”

“That’s what’s unique about our LOPES Academy students,” said Patton during a regular drop-in to check on the interns and touch base with managers. “They all have that intrinsic motivation for employment.”

Seeing them interact with their managers, come to work ready to learn and advocate for themselves is wonderful to see, she added.

Lope Shop Distribution Center Manager Sean Fanning said having Adams and Baird join his team has been a blast.

“They bring a certain spark to the warehouse,” Fanning said. “They’re hard workers, they’re always trying to help and always in a good mood, which is amazing. … Giving them job experience is just beneficial for them and for us. We get a lot of joy from having them here.”

***

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