CONWAY, SC (WMBF) - A program at one local university is changing the stereotypes for people with disabilities to go to college.
Not only are these students getting a secondary education, but they're also learning to be self-sufficient and find a job after graduation.
"I think it's really opened some eyes and some hearts to the abilities of these students, and just realizing that they may have some difficulties, as we all do. We all have our challenges and places where we excel and places where we probably will never excel, and that's what we focus on with our students. We find where their strengths are and we focus on those," said Cheryl Morgan, director of the LIFE Program.
The LIFE Program, which came about as a branch of a secondary education opportunity push for high school students not able to go to college, has been in existence since 2009 at Coastal Carolina University. It has seen growth spurts over the years, according to Morgan, and is celebrating its largest group of freshman this year.
All four college classes of LIFE have about two dozen students.
Morgan said people with disabilities are overwhelmingly male, so she and her co-workers tried to reach out to more women to get them to be part of the program.
Applicants go through an extensive interview process. Thirty people applied for this year's freshman class, and only 10 were chosen. Seven of them are women.
"Only about 2 percent of people with disabilities get opportunities like this," Morgan said.
She was happy to report that 85 percent of LIFE students graduate with a job earning minimum wage or higher. The main focus of LIFE is to get its students used to independent living and employment.
Morgan said the typical person with disabilities would go home after high school, and not to college. LIFE aims to change that.
LIFE students live on their own, or with other CCU students who volunteer or work with the program.
Morgan said about 50 university students are involved with the program. Responsibilities include taking LIFE students to lunch, sports games, club activities and more.
Participants take two audited college courses, two PALS courses and receive reading, math, employment and independent-living through the program. Not only do they work on skills to have a job after college, but also work during their four years of college.
Students assist with the men's and women's basketball teams, club lacrosse team, photography, business and art schools, and more.
Participants like Nia and Larry said LIFE has changed their lives.
"The school I went to was a private school and I feel like I didn't make as many friends in that school as I do at Coastal, because at Coastal I've made a lot of friends, a lot of friends that are just like me," Nia said.
Her mother found the LIFE program for her to help with learning disabilities, according to the freshman. Nia said she's excited to learn more about living on her own, and has tried out for 'Club Cheer' at CCU. She hopes to become a dance instructor or work with animals after graduation.
Larry is a junior in LIFE and loves robotics and his roommates.
"My favorite part of the LIFE program is spending quality time with my friends," Larry said. "Then show up on time to all my classes, and I'm a junior. I feel big and so proud of myself."
Larry works with the men's basketball and club lacrosse teams.
Morgan said the goal is to have a program full of 40 students by the year 2020. She also hopes to grow LIFE's staff.
LIFE costs about $16,000 a year, not including living costs. Morgan said need-based financial assistance is available through the state and other grants.