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Where the Students Are the Teachers: At ‘Shiremont,’ People With Disabilities Learn, Lead, Grow

Sunday, January 26, 2014
Lebanon — On the first day of the semester, nine people wander into the fine arts room at Lebanon College, taking seats at tables arranged in a rectangle. Outside, the wind pushes dry leaves across the concrete walkway; inside, the students unpack laptops, notebooks, pens and pencils. As a warmup, they each choose a word to describe how they are feeling.

Kimberley Wolk is “a little heartsick” because she had to put her orange and white tabby cat, Casey, to sleep that day. Her eyes are sad behind her glasses, and classmate Ashley Dow walks over to hug her.

“I love you,” Dow says.

A handful of others jump up to hug Wolk, who musters a smile. “OK,” she says. “Go sit down.”

They wrap up one agenda item, and Patrick Green, who is running the seminar that week, pauses. “Shall I go on?”

“You’re leading,” Wolk says. “You decide.”

“Oh, OK,” Green says, and moves to the next topic.

The college is their home base, but the men and women are part of Global Campuses Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide advanced learning opportunities for people with disabilities. In addition to the Upper Valley site, known as Shiremont, the Randolph-based organization has seven campuses in Vermont and seven in Thailand, with an eighth soon to open.

Participants design and lead the classes, with coaching from their peers and staff members. They create the course schedule, organize fundraisers, serve on the board of directors, and name their sites — Shiremont is an amalgam of New Hampshire and Vermont. As the semester unfolds, students use feedback from peers and staff members to refine their teaching. Their weekly seminars, such as the one led by Green, include teaching methods and discussions about campuswide concerns.

“I think the cellphone thing is kind of an issue,” Dow said during the seminar.

Her fellow student Maranda Hutchins agreed, citing people using Facebook, texting and talking in class.

“So, do you want to have them turned off?” asked Amy Eberhardt, Global Campuses’ associate executive director.

Within a few minutes, the group decided that phones should be silenced in class, unless they’re needed to communicate with employers or caretakers.

Shiremont, the newest Global Campuses “campus,” opened in 2011. Since then it’s grown to nearly 30 students. Classes, held at the college, local libraries and businesses, attract students from several nearby towns, including Enfield, Windsor, Hartford and Thetford. Because most students do not drive, being able to meet downtown has helped a lot, Eberhardt said. “Transportation is by far our biggest barrier for getting people to classes.”

They are a diverse group in age, interests and skills Some read fluently, others haltingly or not at all. Some work daily with mentors or other assistants; others receive no outside services. Everyone’s knowledge is celebrated.

As an alternative college, Global Campuses sees “what is called a disability as a unique and positive life experience,” said Jim Tewksbury, of Randolph Center, who founded Global Campuses with his wife, Sheryl Tewksbury.

“This is all based on, really, there is no such thing as a disability. It is a socially constructed reality,” Jim Tewksbury said Saturday in a telephone interview from Thailand, where he works part of the year. Global Campuses “is about a paradigm shift in, What is advanced education?”

Tewksbury laid out what he calls the “first foundational principle.”

“We are all 100 percent whole people,” he said. “We are all holders of knowledge.”

Global Campuses, he said, is simply “broadening the hallways” and letting in people with different learning styles and approaches to that “wonderful opportunity of what it means to feel smart, what it means to have somebody interested in what you hold for knowledge in the topics that you are passionate about.”

Students are encouraged to create classes that reflect their interests and help them meet their personal growth objectives.

“It’s all about self-empowerment,” said Donna Stepien, academic coordinator of Global Campuses’ Moretown, Vt., and Shiremont sites. At Global Campuses, each participant is seen as an adult, “not as a person who is being taken care of by somebody.”

Recent Shiremont courses have covered making crafts from recycled materials, poetry writing and using an iPad. Stepien described a cooking class at Shiremont that was “as good as any cooking show you’ve ever seen.” Instructor Nina Moore demonstrated her original applesauce recipe, engaging the students on many different levels and demonstrating her skills “with supreme confidence,” Stepien said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Ronald Biron, president of Lebanon College, said he loves the work that Global Campuses is doing.

“It energizes a lot of people when they see how dedicated these individuals are,” Biron said. “It sheds a different light here on academics.”

A few Shiremont students have matriculated at Lebanon College after completing the admissions process.

“They met all the criteria,” Biron said. “They are dedicated, they are doing their work, and they are passing. ... If they have any special needs, then we meet them.”

Shiremont was organized with the help of local parents of people with special needs and the Lebanon-based Special Needs Support Center.

“It’s just a general need for anybody to have continuing education,” said Philip Eller, the support center’s executive director. “For many of the people we work with, the normal, quote unquote, continuing education opportunities are not terribly accessible or (appropriate).”

In New Hampshire, people with special needs can go to school until they are 21. In Vermont, they can stay in school until they are 22. The Special Needs Support Center offers two continuing education programs for people age 21 or older who have ended their school careers — an ongoing art program in cooperation with AVA Gallery and Art Center and three eight-week courses led by professional facilitators. Shiremont has greatly expanded those opportunities, Eller said. “That’s one reason we were so glad Global Campuses came.”

The organization also offers “a rare opportunity” for people with special needs to teach, Eller said. Watching their self-confidence grow as they teach is “amazing,” he added.

Students generally take anywhere from one to several classes, although occasionally someone takes everything offered in a given semester, Eberhardt said. “If a person doesn’t have a full-time job, or they can make them all, it’s a great way to spend their weeks.”

Long-time educators, the Tewksburys are strong believers in the power of learning. After working with a variety of “disenfranchised people,” including people with disabilities, they began to wonder how to create opportunities “for people who do not have access to this transformative experience,” Jim Tewksbury said.

The couple had spent time in Thailand and saw it as a good place to start the program. “In this part of the world, a little bit of success really made significant difference,” he said.

Working with a group of people, each with special needs, they started Global Campuses Foundation there in 2001. The Tewksburys were later invited to help start Global Campuses in Vermont, and the first site in the state opened in 2003. The foundation is funded about half by fundraising and in-kind donations and half by human service agencies. The nonprofit’s budget this year is about $349,500, Eberhardt said.

For several years, when money was tight, the Tewksburys did not take a salary, said Jason Richardson, CFO of the nonprofit ARIS solutions, which provides business services to the foundation. The unpaid salaries accumulated, and when the Tewksburys forgave the debt, the money showed up as revenue, so in 2011-2012, the nonprofit reported revenues of $551,726 and expenses of $321,820.

Shiremont has worked to keep its program accessible to people on different budgets. A “community supported” site, it receives money from local grant sources and donors and is also supported intermittently by local agencies serving people with special needs. Running the program costs about $1,800 a year per student, and the staff has worked with families individually to determine what they would pay. Some have “opted in” to pay the full tuition, while others have paid just a $5 fee per semester, Eberhardt said. Shiremont is looking at how to best meet its financial needs, which includes creating “a plausible tuition model.”

“We are trying to figure out a way for everyone to pay something,” Eberhardt said. “Whatever we come up with needs to be really, really accommodating.”

Last fall, during the first seminar, participants brainstormed a list of goals for themselves, based on this year’s Global Campuses theme: Healthy Lives, Healthy Planet: Our Shared Challenge. They mined their lists for possible class topics, which included exercise and recycling. Kelly McCarthy, who takes classes at AVA Gallery and Art Center, said she wanted to lead a course on drawing lilies.

“I thought you might enjoy that,” she said, smiling at her classmates.

“That’s a fine topic,” Green said.

Later, they shared their personal goals. One woman planned to contribute her ideas more often in class. Another hoped to lose weight. Hutchins wanted to save money.

“Me, too,” Dow said. Drawing a laugh, she added, “I spend it on crap.”

Unlike traditional college students, Shiremont students do not graduate or earn degrees. But some of the perks are the same. Participants receive an ID card, which can be used for student discounts and as a library card at Lebanon libraries. Global Campuses holds student conferences, and classes are sometimes broadcast from one site to another. “They love that because they can teach to another community, and they end up talking a lot about their campuses,” Eberhardt said.

And, of course, there’s the chance to make friends. It’s an important opportunity for people with special needs, who may have a difference that they feel “a lot of the world doesn’t understand or want to know about,” said Karen Wolk, Kimberley Wolk’s mother.

The Upper Valley is “probably more accepting of people with differences” than other places, Eller said. “We’ve had lots of parents advocating for inclusion and understanding for many years. Over the years, it’s permeated the schools and other institutions.”

The Special Needs Support Center sponsors regular “happenings” — social events that can attract more than 120 people. They also invite local high school and college students, so people with special needs “are not isolated in a homogeneous group all the time.”

But isolation can happen, he said. People with special needs may not have as many work and social opportunities as others “to make those networks and connections.”

Hutchins, who works as a dishwasher at Kendal at Hanover, agrees.

After graduating from Hartford High School in 2003, she sometimes felt alone. “It was hard because I like to stay social with my friends.”

She took a course at a local college and later became involved with Global Campuses, which she prefers.

“It doesn’t cost as much,” said Hutchins, who recently co-taught a class on cat care. “And everyone gets to teach different things.”

Editor’s note: Shiremont will host a talent show and potluck on Feb. 28, from 4-8 p.m., at Main Street Museum in White River Junction. The event is a fundraiser for the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, and admission is by donation. For more information about the Global Campuses Foundation, go to Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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