There are rare moments in life when we know something unprecedented is happening. We experienced some of those rare moments recently when Mary and I made a routine visit to Judson University. We simply wanted to support the kick-off of a new journey for Judson. But before we drove home, we had been blown away, had occasionally felt a lump in our throats, and we were excited for people who too many think have limited futures – people who are often forgotten, except by those who love and care for them.
It was the launch of the RISE program at Judson University. RISE is the Road to Independent Living, Spiritual Formation and Employment. Maybe you’re thinking: aren’t those goals for any Christian University? Yes, but RISE is designed for students with intellectual disabilities.
Two mothers of down syndrome children envisioned RISE. In the providence of God, they found each other, and they began to dream together about how their children could have opportunities for a future and hope too. At the RISE launch, these two mothers shared their inspiring stories of how they discovered hope in each other and their families. Having been in despair at one point, they began to imagine new possibilities for people with intellectual disabilities. They found a Director for RISE, Kathy Lambert, and they found people who believed in their vision enough to support it. Then they received approval from the Judson University Administration and began taking steps for RISE to become reality.
August 16, 2017, was the introduction of the inaugural RISE class. As the new class and their parents were introduced, we began to realize we were witnessing the breaking of a barrier. Each of the students and their parents was presented with Miss America pageantry-style introductions. With lights and cameras, they proudly marched down the aisle of Herrick Chapel. Video stories better acquainted us with these new students, and their parents spoke. The whole evening was first class.
RISE students live in dorms with traditional students, supported by qualified student mentors, while they are purposefully integrated into the campus community. Person-centered planning, career-oriented curriculum, internships and employment opportunities that match skills and interests, await each student. RISE students are in cohorts for two years, which begin in late August and follow the typical academic year. A Certificate of Completion in Liberal Arts with a subject area concentration will be awarded to those who finish the course. It is anticipated that employment may be available where they have served as an Intern.
The evening was wrapped around an inspiring concert with Aaron Shust (http://aaronshust.com/), who has two children who, in his words, earned his family a “disabled placard” for the rearview mirror of their car. He spoke tenderly, lovingly, of his kids and shared funny, meaningful songs he had written for each one. Aaron’s heartening, familiar music was the perfect choice for this inauguration. His multi-talented backup musician, Johnnie, added fun to the evening! At one point he was doing five different things at once: a percussion shaker in his right hand, a jazz brush in his left, while keeping rhythm with his left and right foot on two different drums, then occasionally turning to sing into a microphone; at one point he grabbed a guitar and played it and sang. When his nose suddenly itched, somehow he found a way to scratch it. I could never do the “pat your head with one hand while making circles on your stomach with the other hand,” so I thought he was remarkable.
Judson University is taking the road less traveled, embarking on this cutting-edge educational adventure. I’m proud of Judson for doing this because Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine [think intellectually disabled], you did it for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Jeremiah’s words recorded in Jeremiah 19:11, also take on new meaning. “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, . . . “plans to give you a future and a hope” now offer a new promise to those who thought their future and hope have limits.
Since the eventful evening of the RISE push-off, I’ve thought of the reflections of Ethel Waters on her life. A child of a teenage rape victim, she grew up in Philadelphia slums and the surrounding area, rarely living anywhere for more than a few weeks. Yet, her poignant response to her life difficulties was, “I am somebody cause God don’t make no junk.”
Everything, everyone God makes is special. RISE students and their families have a new reason to inhale grace and exhale gratitude.
To find out more about RISE, visit http://www.judsonu.edu/rise/ There is also a link on that page to financially support this redemptive venture in education. This is #judsonawesome