Slippery Rock program for students with intellectual disabilities offers Greensburg woman chance to thrive

Jan. 2—Lizzie Ammons had fought too hard to let the prospect of college slip from her grasp when word began circulating that Slippery Rock University might shutter its Rock Life program — one of about 300 college programs across the nation for students with intellectual disabilities.

Ammons, 21, of Greensburg was born with Kabuki syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that typically manifests in distinctive facial features, growth delays, varying degrees of intellectual disability and other issues.

She already tasted bitter disappointment in 2020 when Mercyhurst University suspended its Oasis program, which offered academic support for students with disabilities. She had been among 15 students enrolled in the two-year program in Erie.

Determined to go on after finishing her freshman year, she transferred to Slippery Rock. Like Mercyhurst, the state-owned university in Butler County had a residential program for students with intellectual disabilities.

Ammons was thriving in Rock Life — taking classes, making friends, working out at the gym, holding study dates and meeting a friend, Katie, for coffee. Then a rumor leaked last fall that Rock Life, like Oasis, was closing.

Within days, she and 14 fellow students — along with their friends and families — launched an online petition to save the program. They collected nearly 13,000 signatures.

"It hit us hard. There were a lot of tears," Ammons said over Thanksgiving break at her parents' Greensburg restaurant, El Diablo Brewing Co. & Wood-Fired Kitchen. "It had already happened to me once, and I didn't want it to happen to any other kids."

Ammons, who had scaled countless barriers, became an outspoken advocate for students like her — despite her parents having been cautioned not to expect too much from her.

Rachel Flowers beamed as her daughter spoke. She had been a fighter since Day 1, when she faced one health crisis after another as an infant and toddler.

"For the first two years of her life, we were probably at Children's Hospital every other week," Flowers said.

Goal: Work and live independently

The coalition that Rock Life students forged with their parents, fellow Slippery Rock students, professors and advocates had an impact.

University officials quickly dismissed as misinformation the reports they were ending the program. President William Behre said rather than end Rock Life, the school was closing program admissions for a year to reevaluate operations.

He said he would like to see the program strengthened. But he added that officials will have to find additional funding to underwrite the program, which he said is costing the cash-strapped university $70,000 a year. That's on top of tuition and fees the students pay.

Students already in the program will have an opportunity to complete their work, Behre said. He insisted he is committed to the program, adding that his doctorate is in special education and he launched a similar program at the College of New Jersey.

Rock Life is tailored to the needs of individual students and can last two to six years. Students live on campus, are assigned life coaches, take classes and must participate in clubs and sports and take on jobs.

Job readiness is an important skill for students with intellectual disabilities. A recent study found that while there were nearly 430,000 adults in Pennsylvania with such disabilities, only about a quarter of them were employed.

Rock Life's goal is to prepare students to work and live independently.

For Ammons, college was the culmination of years of hard work.

She had always been included in her family's day-to-day life. Helping in the restaurants — the downtown stalwart Sun Dawg Cafe and El Diablo — and lending a hand with her younger brother, 9-year-old Aden, had given her a sense of accomplishment.

Just as important, Flowers said, her daughter found teachers at Greensburg Salem Middle School who built upon that foundation. They challenged and encouraged Ammons to work for her dreams.

Growing up, Ammons had a role model in her brother, David, who was a year older and an academically gifted student.

"He was one of those who convinced me I was going to go to college," she said.

High school English teacher Jeremy Lenzi, who oversees the school yearbook, remembers Ammons as a joy to work with. She was willing to take on new duties and others certainly liked her.

"Lizzie started out in yearbook as a freshman, and she did OK," Lenzi said. "She didn't excel in the beginning. Then as sophomore, little by little, she took on more leadership roles in the group and accepted more responsibility. By the time of her senior year, it was a no-brainer that she should be one of the editors."

Lenzi said he wasn't surprised Ammons spoke out when it appeared her college program was on the line.

"I can understand Lizzie, who has seen it firsthand and benefited from it, wanting others to have that same opportunity," he said.

18 such programs in Pa.

Such opportunities are the culmination of 50 years of battles in the courts and legislative chambers.

Until the early 1970s, many people with intellectual disabilities simply were labeled retarded and shunted aside into massive state-run institutions or segregated into special-education classes that often lacked resources to address a wide variety of individual needs.

That began to change with a series of court rulings establishing the rights of such people. A free appropriate education became the law of the land, leading to the gradual changes.

In 2008, with the reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act, funds finally were available for students like Ammons to pursue a post-secondary education.

Cathryn Weir is project coordinator for the Think College National Coordinating Center, housed in the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The center tracks college programs for students with intellectual disabilities and maintains an online database with information on all of them.

Pennsylvania is home to 18 programs, ranging from Rock Life to Bear Cats, a long-established day program at Saint Vincent College in Unity.

Program data shows students who go through these programs go on to find employment at significantly higher levels than the general population of those with intellectual disabilities, Weir said.

"That is important, but also their social connections, their level of independence and self determination and their ability to speak for themselves improves as well," she said.

Weir said she is working with four colleges that are putting together such programs.

Parents have been a driving force in the creation of such programs, but Weir said in the early days of such programs, it often came down to having one committed person on campus who knocked on doors and worked to persuade officials of their value.

That's what happened at Slippery Rock.

Bob Arnhold, then a professor in the school's adaptive physical activity program, had begun inviting local high school students with intellectual disabilities to campus in an informal program he set up with his students around 2014. The high school students shadowed different staffers, interacted with college students and participated in adaptive physical activities with Arnhold's students.

Eventually, that led to Rock Life.

Arnhold, who retired in 2019, said the program was launched at no cost to Slippery Rock. It quickly became beloved among Slippery Rock students who participated as life coaches and mentors as well as among the students who enrolled in Rock Life.

"It was incredible the stories you heard about (Rock Life) students going home at Thanksgiving after a couple of months being here and the changes their families saw," Arnhold said.

Corrado Bello, who recently graduated with a master's degree in adaptive physical activity, said mentoring Rock Life students was a rewarding experience. He partnered with the students to ensure they participated in the fitness program. They would go to the gym together and participate in intramural sports.

"The growth you see in 10 weeks is pretty amazing," Bello said. "I was working with a first-semester freshman. It was the first time she'd been away from home. In the beginning, she was very shy and not very communicative. But I'd ask a lot of questions. ... By the end, we developed a real friendship."

Bello said he received graduation congratulation text messages from Rock Life students.

"These are kids who would normally be disenfranchised, and now they're friends," he said.

Just as significant, he said, they have given him new perspectives on working with individuals with disabilities.

'I can do it'

While most Rock Life students take classes but aren't focused on degrees, Arnhold said, one student stands out as an example of how such programs can open surprising doors.

"We had a student working in a library as an archivist. He was nonverbal and on the autism spectrum, but he went on to get a computer science degree. It's taken him quite a while, but he did it," Arnhold said.

Ammons said she has struggled with coursework but hopes to pull an A in hospitality and management, the one course she took for credit last semester.

This spring, in addition to classroom work, she will tackle a yet-to-be-determined job — one of the requirements for Rock Life participants.

It may well be connected to the kind of work she has done in her family's Greensburg restaurants or at Growing Together Aquaponics Inc.

Arnhold helped launch Growing Together at the cannery of North Country Brewery just off the Slippery Rock campus. The nonprofit includes two 300-gallon fish tanks with tilapia. Waste product from the fish is turned into nitrates. The plants clean it up, and it is pumped back into fish tanks. The operation, designed to provide employment and training opportunities to Rock Life students, already packages and sells products to three restaurants.

Ammons said her ultimate goal is to finish school in 2023 and be an active participant in her family's business, perhaps ultimately someday helping her brother, David, run the restaurants.

"Now I know if I put my mind to something," she said, "I can do it."

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .