First Bethesda College class graduates in ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

Mike Thirtle, president and CEO of Bethesda Lutheran Communities (BLC), poses with students in the first graduating class of Bethesda College — a partnership of BLC and Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon. From left, the students are Mary Cate Neff of River Hills, Wis.; Claire Chalupka of Whitefish Bay, Wis.; Rachel Hoffman of Grafton, Wis.; Alex Shafer of Fox Point, Wis.; and Thomas Scandrett and Kristen Van Handel — both of Mequon. (Not pictured is Bethesda College graduate Christopher Brandt of Milwaukee.) Van Handel said the two-year program taught her "how to be independent" and helped her "prepare for a job, prepare for the real world."

Mike Thirtle, president and CEO of Bethesda Lutheran Communities (BLC), poses with students in the first graduating class of Bethesda College — a partnership of BLC and Concordia University Wisconsin, Mequon. From left, the students are Mary Cate Neff of River Hills, Wis.; Claire Chalupka of Whitefish Bay, Wis.; Rachel Hoffman of Grafton, Wis.; Alex Shafer of Fox Point, Wis.; and Thomas Scandrett and Kristen Van Handel — both of Mequon. (Not pictured is Bethesda College graduate Christopher Brandt of Milwaukee.) Van Handel said the two-year program taught her “how to be independent” and helped her “prepare for a job, prepare for the real world.” (Bethesda Lutheran Communities)

When the first class from Bethesda College — a two-year program designed for students with developmental disabilities — graduated alongside their Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW) counterparts May 14 in Mequon, Wis., they got a standing ovation from the entire fieldhouse of graduates and their guests.

The seven Bethesda College students received Certificates of Applied Learning in the postsecondary program that’s the result of a partnership between Bethesda Lutheran Communities and CUW — and the only one in Wisconsin that blends the best practices of a nationwide service provider for people with developmental disabilities with the learning environment and resources of an accredited university.

Susan Perkins, whose 22-year-old daughter, Rachel Hoffman, was one of the seven new graduates, said Rachel’s “participation in Bethesda College has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I have seen so much growth in her over the last two years.”

Like most of her high-school friends who went on to attend post-secondary institutions, Rachel wanted to experience the joys and freedoms of living in a dorm room, joining college clubs, attending classes and hanging out on campus, but her parents weren’t sure she could handle the rigors of college-level academics.

“We, at one point, were thinking [college] was not going to be an option for Rachel,” Perkins said. “As parents, we thought that Rachel had the ability to ultimately live independently and support herself, but the path there wasn’t clear. Bethesda helped us find some pathways to this.”

Bethesda College students have the opportunity to live on the CUW campus in integrated residence halls and attend classes that blend a liberal arts focus with skills development. The curriculum is designed to help students grow intellectually, vocationally, socially, personally and spiritually while also giving them some of the perks of a typical university-level experience.

Through the program, Rachel completed two internships: at Newcastle Place Retirement Community in the Memory Care Unit and at Crossroads Presbyterian Preschool where she worked with 3-year-olds.

Although Rachel doesn’t yet have a job, Perkins says the internships were “perfect fits for her life and interests. We didn’t know if she was going to find that. Bethesda showed us that, with support, she could actually perform in the classroom and beyond.”

Nonprofit Bethesda Lutheran Communities was founded more than 110 years ago by Lutherans who wanted to connect faith and service by helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Its goal — like CUW’s — is to foster the mission and ministry of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

“Our partnership with Concordia is a real opportunity to make sure that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have every opportunity to be as independent as possible and to make choices on how to live the lives they want,” said Mike Thirtle, Bethesda president and CEO. “Our graduates are proof of the success of this program, and we wish them a future of achievement and happiness as they go out and chase their dreams.”

Dr. William Cario, senior vice-president of academics at CUW, said the university’s “collaboration with Bethesda Lutheran Communities to make Bethesda College possible has already brought blessings to our two organizations, to the Bethesda College students and to Concordia’s students.”

Cario said the university looks forward to working with Bethesda in the years ahead “to continue to refine this program to have a greater impact on our communities.”

Bethesda College Director Carol Burns believes CUW was “the right place” to start the program, and says “the joy of being there is the acceptance factor and the inclusion factor,” which makes Bethesda students feel welcome.

Burns wants to take the program to more Concordia University System schools, and says she has “directors waiting” at two campuses and “plenty” of student applicants. The only holdup, she adds, is a lack of funding to assist students with tuition.

“It’s a terrible position to be in when you have very wonderful students applying who you know can’t come because of money,” she told Reporter.

For more information about Bethesda College, contact Burns at 847-224-0637 or carol.burns@cuw.edu.

Posted May 20, 2016 / Updated May 27, 2016

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6 Responses to First Bethesda College class graduates in ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

  1. Alan Turley May 20, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Great program!
    I pray it will be copied by other LCMS schools.
    God bless all who are involved!

  2. Ravi Jesupatham May 20, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

    Great! Amazing!! Well done BLC and CUW!!!

  3. Rev. Dr. Dennis Brostrom May 21, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    Indeed. Marvelous! Thank you, Bethesda, for doing this. What a blessing your ministry is to an important part of the Church.

  4. Dennis Floyd May 21, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

    I live for the day this will not be news. As the manager of a supported living program for adults who happen to have developmental disabilities (I like “possibilities” better), I’ve seen, and continue to see so much patronization and “special” labeling – by family, culture, society in general as to conclude that it all only further disables those that it’s intended to raise up. This college is a blessing and a giant step forward.

  5. Sharon May 22, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    I am so happy to read that this opportunity is out there and such a blessing to those making use of it!

  6. Norma Oxley May 23, 2016 at 6:19 am #

    As the grandmother of a young man, almost sixteen years of age, with autism, I find this opportunity for young adults with developmental disabilities to be God-sent. Since He created all of His children, to know that some are now being given the chance to learn beyond the high school level. May God continue to bless this program, and as the previous comment, may it spread to all of our Concordia University system, God-willing.

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