HCC's Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program has been a national model for programs that enable students with intellectual disabilities to attend college.
By LAURIE LOISEL
There was a lot to celebrate Sunday at the Log Cabin in a dining room with a panoramic view from Mount Tom.
Holyoke Community College student Becca LaFleche, 19, was dolled up for the occasion in a leopard print halter dress. Former HCC student Anthony Santucci, 29, looked smart in a sleek black suit and thin gray tie. He claimed the distinction of being the first student to enroll in the program being honored, the Inclusive Concurrent Enrollment Program, better known as ICE.
About 190 people turned out to mark the 10-year anniversary of an innovative program that so far has provided opportunities for 100 young people with intellectual disabilities or on the autism spectrum to attend classes, participate in activities and make new friends at HCC.
When the ICE Program launched at HCC in January of 2007, it was one of five pilot sites in Massachusetts funded by a state grant. Today there are 25 TPSIDs (Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities) at colleges across the country.
HCC's program, according to Maria Paiewonsky of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston, is a model for many other programs. Paiewonsky has been studying the ICE Program at HCC since it started because HCC, she said, "took the lead in this work and shaped what it could look like across the state and nation."
She sees it as a model of best practices.
Five students got their start in the ICE Program and have matriculated into full degree-seeking programs, including South Hadley resident Scott Wetherby, 22, who, in fall 2014, became the first student enrolled in the ICE Program to make the Dean's List.
"I like the new challenges to follow my dream," said Wetherby, an art major who brought his portfolio to the celebration. "My dream is to be an anime artist."
Santucci, who works at the Big Y in Ware, said the years he spent at HCC changed his life.
"I'm trying to figure out where the years went," he said as ICE alum flooded into the hall, greeting one another as well as the founding coordinator for the ICE program, Ty Hanson, with great enthusiasm.
Before the ICE program, students like Santucci, LaFleche and Wetherby would have been shut out of a college experience due to their intellectual disabilities. Most of them would have remained at their high schools until they turned 22 and no longer qualified for public educational services. While those extended high school programs taught life skills, they lacked the age-appropriate college experience many young people long for.
For Santucci, high school was not a happy place. He said he experienced bullying and would not have remained in high school if not for the dual-enrollment ICE Program. At HCC, he said, he found a chance to start fresh, leave his bullying experiences behind. He studied theater, learned to build sets, made friends and set goals.
"Now that I'm older, what I want to do is go back to school," said Santucci. "I want to help kids that have been victims of sex trafficking and abuse and also go to a cooking school."
LaFleche, meanwhile, recently completed her first year at HCC.
"It's been awesome," she said while dining on tomato bisque and a panini sandwich. "I'm taking art, and the art classes are amazing."
She rides a PVTA van to the HCC campus three days a week and takes life skills classes two days a week at Belchertown High School. She enjoys the mix.
"I have a lot of friends at HCC and BHS," she said. "I like both the same."
Her mother, Robin LaFleche, didn't know about the ICE Program until Ron Oparowski, a transition specialist at Belchertown High School, approached her.
"I asked her 'what's your vision for Becca?' and she said 'What do you mean, we'd be happy if she finishes the four years,' " recalls Oparowski.
"I didn't even know that she could be college-bound," said LaFleche.
At first, LaFleche said she was nervous to think about her daughter, who has developmental and speech delays and other health issues, navigating a college campus on her own. She feared her daughter would be overwhelmed by a school she was unfamiliar with and people she didn't know.
But now, nine months later, her mother said she can see how much Becca has grown and gained confidence as she experienced independence.
"She knows the campus well. She can get herself from here to there. She knows her routine," said LaFleche. "The letting go part for me was huge. They have done a fantastic job."
Oparowski has referred five students from Belchertown to the ICE Program, which he believes gives them a chance to be with their peers, engaged in age-appropriate learning and socializing. About LaFleche, he said, he knew HCC would open horizons for her.
"I could see in her an inherent passion for art and fashion," he said. "She's also super social. She really enjoys making new friends, meeting new adults, and I knew she'd be able to blossom there."
Blossom she has, says her mother.
Clearly delighted to be interviewed by a reporter, Becca smiled frequently when talking about her experiences at HCC. Asked what her favorite thing is, her answer was unequivocal, delivered with a mischievous smile.
"There's not one thing," she said. "I love it all."
PHOTOS by KERI RUSSELL: (Left) Anthony Santucci, 29, speaks at the ICE Program 10th anniversary event at the Log Cabin. (Right) ICE Program coordinator Ty Hanson shakes hands with Nick Mercure at the program's 10th anniversary event June 12. (Thumbnail) Ty Hanson and Morgan Smith share a moment at the ICE Program 10th anniversary celebration.