Florida should continue its support of transition programs that help students with intellectual disabilities attend college and become more independent, educators and program leaders told the Florida Senate’s Committee on Higher Education recently.
Both College of Education Dean Delia C. Garcia and Diana M. Valle-Riestra, director of FIU’s Project Panther LIFE, were among a select group invited to share with committee members how these programs make a difference in the lives of students who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to attend class at a university.
The results are tangible: in all, the legislature’s commitment of state funds in recent years for Panther LIFE has led to 86 percent of its graduates securing paid employment. In addition, five current Panther LIFE students also hold paying jobs.
“It really started in 2011 as a labor of love by a parent advocate who had a son with unique abilities who wanted to come to the university and she couldn’t bear to tell her son there was no program at a university he could join,” Garcia said.
“She knocked on many doors and FIU united to responsibly answer the call for action and address a great need in our community for this type of program. The College of Education has taken a leadership role in designing and implementing the project throughout the years.”
What sets Panther LIFE apart is the partnerships it has developed with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Parent to Parent of Miami to help students succeed by pairing them with academic mentors and peer coaches and placing them in job shadowing and internship programs that prepare the students for integrated and competitive paid employment.
“Our program is very unique,” said Valle-Riestra, the Project Panther LIFE director. “We prepare our students with the knowledge and skill base for them to go on to integrated and paid employment and we partner with a parent resource center because their families also need to be supported.”
FIU is also asking the state for continued and recurring funding to support Project Panther LIFE in the upcoming years, said FIU Governmental Relations Director Adriana Pereira Reyes ‘05.
With that funding, Panther LIFE will be able to expand its program to include individuals who are older than 22 years of age.
“The support we have received from the Florida Legislature has been overwhelming,” Pereira Reyes said. “We have found champions for this important cause in Senate President Andy Gardiner, Education Budget Chair Erik Fresen, and Senator Anitere Flores and Representative Jeanette Nuñez, both FIU alumna.
“These individuals understand the challenges that students with intellectual disabilities face and have taken an active role to ensure that the State of Florida does everything it can to provide opportunity and access.”