Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau
The lunchtime chit-chat over Subway sandwiches and brown-bag meals channeled itself into full-blown, all-out chatter that zigged and zagged around “Dear Evan Hansen” (“Oh, I LOVE Evan Hansen!”), CinemaSense, “Shrek,” fashion (“It’s not much of a sport, but whatever”) and swimming.
Alexa Herriman pondered the possibility of swimming in one of the Grand Canyon University pools. She is in Special Olympics, though she isn’t keen on the butterfly stroke: “I feel like I’m waterboarding myself when I do the butterfly. … It’s not pretty.”
“I can teach you some things. I swam for 11 years,” Jaclyn Turner chimed in.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship – actually, six beautiful friendships – between GCU’s newest students, the first cohort of the L.O.P.E.S. Academy at the Cardon Center, and their L.O.P.E.S. Buddies.
The academic venture, which made its debut earlier this month, makes the college experience a possibility for adults with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities.
A central part of that college experience for those students is being paired with a L.O.P.E.S. Buddy, a GCU student who will be by their side for campus activities, from Chapel to basketball games.
Dr. Heidi Boldway, Assistant Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said the University wanted to help facilitate a sense of independence for the L.O.P.E.S. Academy students while also providing that inclusive, immersive, Christian university experience for which GCU is known. What better way to do that than by matching them with GCU students?
“We wanted them to experience college life on a deeper level and from a student perspective. It’s also to provide a level of friendship,” said Boldway, who said that she and other faculty could take L.O.P.E.S. Academy students around campus all day long but it wouldn’t be the same experience as it is with a GCU student.
It was a big day Sept. 22 for the L.O.P.E.S. Academy students, who met their Buddies for the first time at the Cardon Center, a welcoming, dedicated hangout space on the third floor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Watercolor-like lavender prints of balloons and the GCU antelope logo decorate one wall at the center, and a seating area in one corner, complete with GCU purple-and-gray throws and pillows, invites students to stay awhile.
“I was really excited (to meet my Buddy),” said Lindsey Eaton, one of the six trailblazers in the first L.O.P.E.S. Academy cohort. “I have someone to go to Chapel with, go to lunch with, go to sporting events with.”
The call of the day, at least for Eaton, was a simple jaunt down Lopes Way for lunch with her new Buddy, Jayden Orr, a junior double major in psychology and biology with a pre-med emphasis.
“I was super involved in this kind of thing in high school, and I just really enjoyed doing it and wanted to bring it (that experience) to college, too,” Orr said.
The perennially upbeat Emma Cardon was so excited about meeting her Buddy, sophomore criminal justice major Bella Buxton, that she said, “At home, I literally told everyone.”
Buxton was thrilled to be a Buddy and to be matched with Cardon. She was part of a similar program at her high school, where she worked with students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
She loves making that one-on-one connection, she said.
“I’m planning on showing her (Cardon) around campus. She’s never been to GCBC, so I’ve definitely got to take her there. We’re going to Chapel on Mondays, and I’ll just show her around. If she wants, she can see my apartment and see what that’s like.”
The L.O.P.E.S. Academy’s two Mikaylas – L.O.P.E.S. student Michaela Lilly and her Buddy, Mikayla Espinoza, headed to Subway on Lopes Way to grab a couple of sandwiches to bring back to the Cardon Center.
“The buddy thing, I definitely was excited about, plus she has the same name as me,” said Lilly, whose sister Ashlynn, a GCU graphic design and advertising senior, suggested a trip sometime this semester to GCBC.
“It’s super good,” a GCU student in the Subway line piped in when she heard Lilly ask her Buddy about GCBC. “I LOVE it.”
“We’re going to be like the dream team,” said Espinoza, who heard about the L.O.P.E.S. Buddy program from her professor, Dr. Rebekah Dyer. “Both my parents are teachers, so I’ve kind of seen the general education aspect, but I was more interested in special education because I’ve worked before with students who have special needs.”
Espinoza, a junior, is majoring in special education and elementary education.
“I was real excited to do it (be a Buddy). It looks like so much fun,” she said.
Boldway said the GCU students who are L.O.P.E.S. Buddies – all the Buddies are sophomores or juniors – are uniquely qualified to do so. Some have worked in similar programs in high school or have a family member with special needs.
“Some of them are Honors students, some are members of the Best Buddies club, and some are students who learned of the program from a faculty member or campus presentation,” Boldway said. “However, all have a passion for supporting individuals with disabilities to thrive.”
She added how the program is enriching not just for the L.O.P.E.S. Academy students but for the Buddies, too. “Some are interested in a career in secondary education with a focus on special education. The L.O.P.E.S. Buddy opportunity provides practical experience to add to their resume.”
Lilly heard about the L.O.P.E.S. Academy from her mom, Diane, a university counselor at GCU, and she didn’t hesitate to sign up.
“I really need some independence and am working on time management,” Lilly said.
The Michaela-Mikayla dream team weaved its way from Subway back to the Cardon Center and joined Herriman and Turner, a junior who wants to teach math.
“I want to be a teacher, and so I think it (being a Buddy) will give me a lot of experience,” said Turner. “But also I have a little brother with autism, so I honestly felt like I would be a really good Buddy.”
They don’t have any formal plans yet, but “if she (Herriman) wants to go to a game or wants to hang out, then I’ll plan to go with her,” Turner said.
The plucky Herriman, who brought out her stuffed Scooby-Doo and a 1972 Batman and Wonder Woman collectible to show to Turner, said she was thrilled to have a support partner for the semester.
“I have a friend to chat to,” Herriman said with a smile.
The L.O.P.E.S. Academy initiative is a two-year commitment for those enrolled in the program, a partnership between GCU and Don and Kim Cardon, principals of the Cardon Group. Buddies commit to the students they’re matched with for that two-year span, a commitment they were more than ready to give.
Besides hanging out with their Buddies for various events, students in the L.O.P.E.S. Academy attend an hourlong class two days a week. Each course spans seven weeks, with students completing two courses per semester.
The excitement of being paired with a Buddy is the icing on the cake of the students’ college experience – an academic experience geared toward jobs. It includes some of the same classes GCU students take, modified for L.O.P.E.S. Academy enrollees. As for all GCU students, the program will culminate with a capstone experience, likely an internship.
Eaton, who has autism, said she was excited not only to meet her L.O.P.E.S. Buddy but is looking forward to one class in particular.
“I’m one of the only ones in the program that works,” said Eaton, a dining room attendant at BridgeWater Assisted Living and an adept social media blogger. “I came in with a job. So it’s about professionalism at work and communication.”
Vicky Richardson said she wanted to be part of the L.O.P.E.S. Academy “to learn new math,” particularly division. Outside of class, she and her Buddy, Grace Davis, likely won’t be attending too many sports events (neither is a sports fan), but lunch and campus walks are always on the table.
Davis’ reason for applying to be a L.O.P.E.S. Buddy: “For friendship,” she said.
And how about homework? Any yet?
Emma Cardon just smiled, her Buddy sitting next to her outside of Chick-fil-A: “I’m good at it, but, nope!”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.