Penn State students help local students with disabilities stay connected

May 19, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. ­— Lifelink PSU, a unique partnership between the State College Area School District (SCASD) and Penn State, provides an opportunity for special education high school students ages 18 to 21 to interact with others by taking Penn State courses and engaging in University activities.

However, the Lifelink PSU program met a new reality when both the school district and the University announced that classes would be held remotely due to the impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Although there was concern from families on how Lifelink PSU would continue the program in its standard capacity, program staff and Penn State student volunteers, called mentors, have been working diligently via Zoom to bridge the socialization gap.

Ellen Cannizzaro, program coordinator for Lifelink PSU, explained that continuing the program as usual, is essential because having a schedule is important to Lifelink PSU students.

"Our students and mentors handled all of this so well," Cannizzaro said. "For my students to know there's still structure has been helpful. I'm truly amazed at how they embraced this new normal and how incredible our mentors are. They stepped up to be there for our students, and some of these friendships between students and mentors go on for years. It's a beautiful thing."

Currently, Lifelink PSU has over 600 mentors, a record for the organization, and four full-time learning-support staff that normally work with students in their classroom located within the HUB-Robeson Center. Mentors would take Lifelink PSU students to their Penn State classes, assist with notes and assignments, have lunch with them and spend time with them in the HUB classroom.

'Wake It Up with Jacob'

Lifelink PSU students, during the spring 2020 semester, met online every morning at 8:15 a.m. and would end each day at 2:45 p.m. Mentors tried to move forward as smoothly as possible, such as hosting their regular sessions, like fitness classes and reading hours, via Zoom.

For Jacob Corey, a 2020 kinesiology graduate and Schreyer Scholar, it was important to continue his two fitness classes for the students.

A young man wearing glasses stands with a young woman holding a "Links of Love" sale sign for Lifelink PSU.

Jacob Corey (right), a May 2020 kinesiology graduate, knew that he had to join Lifelink PSU after learning about the organization in one of his courses.

IMAGE: Jacob Corey

"People have really come together and reacted well," Corey said. "It doesn't surprise me that Penn Staters are doing so much to give back, because we're part of a family and here for each other. We couldn't have done all of this without the support and dedication of Lifelink PSU staff and mentors."

Corey hosted the "Wake It Up with Jacob" sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as "Fitlink" each Wednesday.

Each class focused on motor control, balance, reaction timing and more. "Wake It Up with Jacob" honed in on mobility, such as teaching students how to move their bodies within a space and getting them more comfortable with being active.

During Fitlink, which was a collaboration with fellow kinesiology student Alexis Baublitz; Jonna Belanger, assistant teaching professor from the College of Health and Human Development; and an intern, students learned how to enjoy fitness and worked on their socialization skills via physical activity to promote fitness for life.

During the spring semester, Corey was logging in and logging out at the same time as the students, and also jumping back on for late-night activities like karaoke night on Mondays and a dance party on Wednesdays.

A group of students and student instructors meet together via Zoom for an online fitness course.

Fitlink, run by former student Jacob Corey; faculty member Jonna Belanger; kinesiology student Lexi Baublitz; and an intern, was able to move to the Zoom platform with minimal disruption for the Lifelink PSU students. 

IMAGE: Provided

In total, Corey was spending anywhere from 30 to 40 hours a week with the students online, which he credits to his light credit load during the spring semester, as he only had two remaining classes before graduation. Typically, during a regular semester, students volunteer anywhere from 10 to 15 hours a week to the program, which depends on their course schedules and free time.

For Corey, being able to dedicate these many hours was a treat. He said he loves spending time with the students, and in his spare time, he is often texting, calling and using video calls to chat with the Lifelink PSU students.

Corey's involvement with the program was serendipitous; he came across the program at a time when he, too, was seeking a community. When he learned about LifeLink PSU in one of his second-year classes, he knew he had to join. He began volunteering within the same week.

Corey said he's always aspired to work in physical education with people with disabilities and special needs.

"Both of my parents are in health care, so I have been around people with varying situations all my life," Corey said. "Everyone at Lifelink PSU smiles and is truly happy to see you."

Corey will begin his graduate education in June with the University of Delaware, and until then, he will continue working with Lifelink PSU during Maymester, which is the time between University commencement and high school graduation.

Corey said he plans to become a physical therapist. He wants to work in pediatrics for physical therapy, and he credits Lifelink PSU to changing the way he sees education.

"Lifelink PSU impacted the way I educate and promote physical activity to others," Corey said. "As an undergraduate, I still had a lot to learn, but as long as I brought a real passion and energy to my classes, then the students would bear with me. They make me want to be better at what I do."

Michael and Thomas Verderame

For Michael Verderame, senior associate dean at the Graduate School, Lifelink PSU's transition to online learning was "phenomenal," and a weight lifted off his shoulders.

"It's hard to convey how remarkable this program is, and it's unbelievable how amazing the undergraduates in this program are," Verderame said. "They kept the ship going and I didn't even have to think about it. It was seamless. Thomas is still engaged and involved, and his routine had minimal upset. I've heard lots of laughter."

A young man in a winter jacket sits on the Penn State Lion Shrine.

Thomas Verderame graduated from Lifelink PSU at the end of the spring 2020 semester and said that he was glad he could still see his friends via Zoom.

IMAGE: Michael Verderame

Verderame's youngest son, Thomas, who has autism, graduated from Lifelink PSU at the end of the spring 2020 semester and has plans to move onto Worklink in fall 2020.

Worklink, similar to Lifelink PSU, provides a focus on work experience and career skills, socialization, independent living skills, financial literacy and self-advocacy skills that can lead to future employment.

Thomas explained that Zoom was a good experience and he plans to have fun during his Maymester; he is excited to take classes like Irish step dancing and painting. He is also enjoying the dance parties on Wednesdays.

"It was very nice to see my friends via Zoom," Thomas said. "I'm glad I had the chance to do Lifelink PSU."

Michael Verderame said he feels as though the two years Thomas spent in the program have flown by, but that the connections his son has been able to make during this time were amazing.

"State College is large and diverse, and there are so many opportunities here," he said. "People can ‘fit in’ here in their own way. The entire program is so incredible and helps develop the students' skills and how they interact with their peers. Lifelink PSU isn’t just educating students in classes; they are educating them for life."

 "We Are" stories

The "We Are" spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State's commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a "We Are" moment — and we want to hear your "We Are" stories.

Visit news.psu.edu/WeAre to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by COVID-19. We are!

Last Updated May 20, 2020