LifeLink PSU provides bond between PSU, State College Area School District

UNIVERSITY PARK — A smile spreads across Marla Yukelson’s face as she sits upright in her chair. Her voice grows louder and words come tumbling out a bit faster as she describes what is admittedly, for her, a labor of love.

“I love what I’m doing. This is a great job. I taught for 11 years at Park Forest Middle School where I was a learning support teacher in the seventh grade,” she said. “Then I was asked to come take over this program. This has just been the best job that I didn’t know I was supposed to take. It was a great move. I really enjoy doing this. It fits me perfectly.”

Yukelson is the program coordinator of LifeLink PSU and a special education teacher in the State College Area School District. She has a master’s in special education from the Penn State College of Education.

LifeLink is a partnership between the State College Area School District and the Penn State College of Education. Qualified SCASD students with disabilities, aged 18-21, can take classes at University Park. Penn State students volunteer to mentor those students.

LifeLink students take 100 and 200 level classes, escorted by Penn State student mentors. The mentors also dine with students and help them with homework, projects, and various crafts.

Aurielle C., a third-year LifeLink student, said her favorite classes have been Theater 102 (Fundamentals of Acting), Kinesiology 017 (Ballroom Dance), and Communication Sciences and Disorders 218 (American Sign Language I).

She said the sign language course will eventually allow her to communicate with a deaf friend. The ballroom dance class enabled her to make a new friend.

“I had a Penn State football player as an intern for that class. He was a really good dancer. He was really light on his feet. His name was Nate Cadogan. If anything, I looked bad on the dance floor because I kept stepping on his feet,” Aurielle said.

Yukelson’s love and passion for LifeLink PSU was shared by a record number of students last semester. In fall semester 2013, an unprecedented 265 mentors volunteered a record number of 4,806 volunteer hours.

“I feel that LifeLink is so popular because it has this unexplainable, infectious feeling in its classroom that is exhibited in all of its students and staff,” said Jamie Glass, a junior majoring in childhood and early adolescent education (PreK-4).

“The LifeLink students and teachers welcome all Penn Staters into their classroom with open arms, whether those students are studying toward a degree in education, biology, engineering, or any other area of study you could ever think of. The students and staff of the LifeLink room inspire you to want to be the best person you can be and volunteers find themselves smiling throughout their time volunteering in the LifeLink room,” continued Glass.

Students from all majors are eligible to volunteer, however, the College of Education has the greatest representation from a single College. Last semester, 49 College of Education students provided 1,209 hours of volunteer time.

“I think that LifeLink is so popular because the LifeLink students are so genuine and so much fun to work with. I personally started volunteering as a requirement for a class, but fell in love with the program and decided to continue to come back for three more semesters,” said Rachel Mannheimer, a junior majoring in secondary education English/communications.

“I think everyone has such a good experience at LifeLink that they tell their friends, who in turn decide to volunteer. I also think that once you meet all the students and form connections with them, it’s hard to leave, and so volunteers keep coming back and dedicating more and more of their time to the program and the students.”

That is indeed the case, Yukelson said.

“A question on one of our forms asks, ‘How did you hear about us?’ and many of them say a friend is a mentor,” she said. “We get a lot of word-of-mouth volunteers.”

Kelcee Benzel, a sophomore majoring in early childhood education, is one such volunteer.

“I think it is becoming more popular because as word gets out about the program, it is a convenient and rewarding way to volunteer,” Benzel said. “I volunteer just simply to volunteer and found out about the LifeLink program through someone in my RA training class.”

Yukelson said LifeLink volunteers generally fall into one of two categories: people who simply want to volunteer and people who have worked with people with disabilities in some capacity in the past and want to continue that. She said those mentors usually share similar traits.

“Compassion, patience, organization and a willingness to be friendly and learn about a population of students that might be a little different than themselves,” she said.

“Our mentors are absolutely the lifeblood and backbone of this program. Our students get so much out of their relationships with their mentors. They literally stand at the door, waiting for them to come each day.”

It’s no wonder they are so eager, especially considering the impact  the program has on the students.

Said Aurielle, “In the beginning, when I was just getting out of high school, I got the acceptance letter and I was so pumped up. I was so excited to come here. As soon as I got here it was a huge big deal to me. I was so happy. Not only did I have awesome peers, but I also had several awesome paras, interns and teachers,” she said.

“I had butterflies in my stomach when I first came up. I warmed up slowly. They grew on me. Now, they’re not only my friends, they’re like family.”

For more information on LifeLink, call 814-865-8260, email Yukelson at mly11@scasd.org or visit http://lifelinkpsu.weebly.com/

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Last Updated March 10, 2014