New participants sing praises of L.O.P.E.S. Academy

L.O.P.E.S. Academy participant Chase Baird busts out an impromptu performance recently at the TEDxGCU booth. Baird and three others joined the program this semester.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

“Hi! My name is Matthew,” says the sunny-dispositioned Matthew Adams as he welcomes visitors to the L.O.P.E.S. Academy at the Cardon Center with a hearty handshake and a light-up-everything smile.

It’s as if he’s done this handshaking thing before, and as it turns out, he has.

Best friends Matthew Adams (left) and Baird do everything together. They’re greeters for the Arizona Coyotes, are in the Hip Hop Homies, and now are getting a college experience at GCU’s L.O.P.E.S. Academy.

Adams and his bestie Chase Baird – they have known each other since they were babies – readily dole out fist pumps to fans at Arizona Coyotes games, where they work as greeters. Angels for Higher, a “social-profit” organization, facilitates the hiring of people with Down Syndrome as greeters at sports venues, performing arts centers and the like across the country.

Now they have expanded their social – and educational – repertoire as two of the four newest participants of Grand Canyon University’s L.O.P.E.S. Academy at the Cardon Center, a learning space nestled on the third floor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS).

The L.O.P.E.S. Academy, a two-year program designed to give young adults with mild intellectual and developmental disabilities the college experience, debuted this fall. The addition of the four new participants this spring semester rounds out the program’s first 10-slot cohort.

Adams and Baird heard about the initiative through friends; they both know someone in the program, which is unique in that it offers a college experience in an inclusive Christian environment. Although they were only on day six of their L.O.P.E.S. Academy venture – students meet for Chapel, personal development, a social hour, lunch with their L.O.P.E.S. Buddies, and an hourlong class two days a week – you would think they have been part of the program since the beginning.

Case in point: an impromptu stop on the Promenade for a bit of beat-boxing while the group made their way to various campus lunch destinations.

L.O.P.E.S. Academy volunteer Spencer Drury (right) sits with participants during class at the Cardon Center in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I instigated that. I said, ‘Matthew, you want to sing?’” said Grace Davis, beaming.

She is one of the program’s L.O.P.E.S. Buddies, GCU students paired one-on-one with academy participants. Buddies accompany them to Chapel, lunch, class and social activities and help them with whatever they might need during their two years at GCU, a time when friendships between Buddies and academy participants develop organically.

Of course, no question, the gregarious Adams wanted to sing.

He stepped behind the microphone at the TEDxGCU table, where students were promoting the University’s upcoming TED talks, and busted out a beat. Best friend Baird followed up with some singing of his own.

Not only do the two work together as Arizona Coyotes greeters, but they’re also members of a performance group called the Hip Hop Homies.

GCU students were more than ready to cheer them on.

It has been just one of the moments that has made the L.O.P.E.S. Academy experience so unforgettable for the GCU student Buddies.

“Oh my gosh, it’s SO much fun,” said Jaclyn Turner, who is majoring in mathematics for secondary education and is paired with L.O.P.E.S. Academy participant Alexa Herriman. “Bowling. Bowling was a highlight. I love that day.”

Turner has more to look forward to: The Canyon Activity Center rock-climbing wall is next on the program’s list of social activities.

“And we became besties through it, too,” Davis said of the friendship she developed with Turner, a fellow Buddy.

“We’re besties for the resties,” Turner piped in. “We’re always doing stuff. Even the things you’d think might be boring, like schoolwork, is always fun. There’s always something happening or someone says something funny that gets everyone going.”

L.O.P.E.S. Academy Buddy Jordan Trammell (right) hangs out with program participant Jaden Lowery. Trammell, a GCU student, said the best part of being a Buddy is just hanging out with the participants and getting to know them.

GCU student Jordan Trammell saw being a L.O.P.E.S. Buddy as a way to get more involved on campus while also helping someone who needs it.

“I was lonely my first year here, and I wanted to help,” said Trammell, whose cousin suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He thought his experiences helping his cousin make it through some challenging days could help in his role as a Buddy.

His favorite experience so far: “Just hanging out with Jaden (Lowery), my original buddy, and getting to know him really well,” said Trammell, who is pitching in these days as Chase Baird’s Buddy and kept an eye out for him at Chick-fil-A, making sure he was able to check out.

Trammell said bowling wasn’t bad, either. “I killed everybody in bowling, too,” he said with a smile.

L.O.P.E.S. Academy participants, including Ray Chiago (left), are taking the Finding Your Purpose Through A Christian Worldview course this semester.

Sophomore psychology major/behavioral health minor Mark Mwesigwa-Sserunjogi joined the L.O.P.E.S. Academy this spring semester as the program’s newest Buddy for one of the new members of the program, Ray Chiago.

Mental health awareness, Mwesigwa-Sserunjogi said, isn’t really a consideration in his home country of Uganda. Moving to America and seeing the resources here to help people reach the best of their ability, instead of being isolated, inspired him.

It inspired him, too, to apply to be a L.O.P.E.S. Buddy.

“So far, I’ve had an amazing experience. Ray’s an amazing buddy,” Mwesigwa-Sserunjogi said.

Kyle Bragelman is getting the college experience at GCU, just like his brother, David.

New L.O.P.E.S. Academy participant Kyle Bragelman, 19, said his parents told him about the program at GCU, where his brother, David, also goes to school. He didn’t want to go to college at first, he said, because he thought it might stress him out more than high school did. But he’s warming up to it.

“My favorite part of the L.O.P.E.S. Academy is all the social activities I do,” he said and checked off what he has liked so far in his two weeks in the program: lunch, the workshops and his Christian worldview class.

“Sometimes people say, 'Are you excited for this?'” Bragelman said. “I wouldn’t say excited. I would say I’m looking forward to it.”

L.O.P.E.S. Academy Program manager Allison Kolanko, who helms social activities and workshops in the Cardon Center, didn’t have much time to breathe on a recent Wednesday as she met one-on-one with participants and their Buddies and helped them work on procedures and goal-setting.

Students also this spring are taking the Finding Your Purpose Through a Christian Worldview (Christian Heritage) class, taught by one of GCU’s instructors in a different room in CHSS. Those enrolled in the academy take two seven-week courses per semester and will end their time at the University, as most GCU students do, with an internship.

Participants also are focusing on goal-setting, she said, as she gives advice to one Buddy to remind her L.O.P.E.S. Academy friend that it’s time to clean up and get ready for class.

L.O.P.E.S. Academy Program Manager Allison Kolanko helms social activities and workshops and, this semester, is teaching goal-setting.

“Look how people are ready to be a team and wipe down the table together,” Kolanko said, peeking into the Cardon Center as lunch winded down and class was ready to start.

She also is going through applications for new Buddies and the next cohort of participants, who will start the program in the fall.

“I am so proud of the participants,” said Kolanko. “Everyone has grown immensely, both personally and academically, during the first semester. We are so excited to have four new participants join us, and we look forward to seeing them flourish.”

New program participant Ray Chiago said his parents were the ones who told him about the L.O.P.E.S. Academy. They told him it would be the perfect place for him.

He said they were right: “I love it.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

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To apply to the L.O.P.E.S. Academy: Click here

GCU students interested in being a L.O.P.E.S. Academy Buddy: Send an email to the L.O.P.E.S. Academy

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Related content:

GCU Today: L.O.P.E.S. Academy students connect with Buddies

GCU Magazine/GCU Today: Cardon Center accents possibilities, not disabilities

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