Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Cherished Time Together: Despite challenges, LifeLink PSU unites college students and young adults with special needs

Ellen Cannizzaro was used to having 600 Penn State students as mentors for LifeLink PSU, a State College Area School District program she runs that supports 18-21-year-olds who have special needs. The LifeLink participants would attend Penn State classes as guests with their mentors, and they had part-time jobs on campus.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Cannizzaro and her staff to re-engineer the program to still provide a valuable learning experience for the 13 people who attended LifeLink PSU in 2020-21. They relied on video conferencing technology to pull it off, and while the experience wasn’t without hiccups, the students adapted and have succeeded at overcoming the challenge, Cannizzaro says.

“We’ve tried to make it the best experience we could, even though it’s not normally what they would have gotten,” Cannizzaro says. “The heart and soul is the relationships between the mentors and the students.”

LifeLink PSU provides a setting for these adults to learn social skills, independence, and responsibility with the help of Penn State undergrads. The LifeLink participants have to complete four years of high school before they can apply.

The program is based in Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center, but because of the university’s and school district’s health and safety guidelines, the program couldn’t start the school year in its normal space. Instead, they moved to the district’s Panorama Village building, which also houses State College Area’s administration offices.

“Having to leave our home was really tough,” Cannizzaro says. 

In previous years, she says, the HUB classroom felt as busy as a bus station. Penn State students, which number more than 600 in a normal year, dropped in to mentor the LifeLink participants. The university students would accompany participants to classes, take them to a gym, have lunch, walk around campus, and more. 

LifeLink PSU students and their mentors cherish the time they spend together, Cannizzaro says.

This past year, though, LifeLink students missed out on the in-person interactions and instead had to meet their mentors using video conferencing apps like Zoom and Google Meet.

Cannizzaro was also used to having about 30 classes for the LifeLink students to attend as guests. But as the university moved many classes online because of the pandemic, Cannizzaro had only five in each of the fall and spring semesters for her students to attend.

Still, the LifeLink students showed resilience in dealing with the challenging times.

“Our students have really been stretched, as we have, to learn the technology. They know Google and Zoom really well,” Cannizzaro says.

Rosemary Schwoerer, a paraprofessional, says the students were used to meeting perhaps 20 mentors a day before COVID, and interacting with so many different people helps them mature and be more responsible. It’s their “lifeline to the world,” she says.

The LifeLink students eventually became adept at projecting their own personalities over Zoom, Schwoerer says.

In March, LifeLink PSU was able to return to the HUB. They still had to follow the district’s and university’s health and safety guidelines, such as mandatory masking and social distancing. 

“The first day a mentor came in-person was the happiest day for everybody,” Cannizzaro says. “As much as you have the technology to get through, it doesn’t replace human interaction. When the first mentor walked through, they went nuts.”

This year was the first for LifeLink student Lexi Albert. She says her favorite part was being in-person with her friends and going outside to enjoy the fresh air. 

Riley Greenland, who was in his first and only year this year, says the mentors were kind and helped with computer problems. Overall, he says, he has enjoyed the independence.

“Here, I just have more freedom,” he says. “I’m free – I don’t have to obey the rules of the high school anymore.”

Another LifeLink student, Matthew Biek, knew the program before COVID, and he says his favorite part was going to Penn State classes, particularly several psychology classes, with the mentors. 

Biek was able to maintain his job, at the Penn State Bookstore in the HUB, during the pandemic, too. The whole experience has helped him mature over the three years that he has attended, he says.

Biek and Greenland were among the seven students recognized during the LifeLink PSU graduation ceremony in April.

A Penn State student, Alicia Houser, who was a mentor for three years and a full-time intern this spring semester before she graduated, helped put together a video to mark the occasion. She recorded LifeLink students giving speeches, reflecting on their time in the program, thanking their Penn State mentors, and talking about the future.

The students and some mentors got to watch the video during a ceremony at the Mount Nittany Middle School in late April.

“It was such an honor to be behind the camera for the students. A lot of them are movie stars. They love it,” Houser says.

Rachel McGurrin, another Penn State mentor, says the graduation was her favorite memory from the past year, which was her first. One of the LifeLink students asked her for help writing her graduate speech.

McGurrin says she loved the event and is glad the speeches were recorded, so the LifeLink students can re-watch them. Plus, the graduation event was a taste of returning to normal.

“It gave hope. Things are going to get better, and this is the first step for LifeLink PSU,” McGurrin says.

Mike Dawson is a freelance writer who lives in College Township.