NORMAL — When Seth Bauersfeld and Robert Lott walk across the stage at Heartland Community College's commencement on Saturday, they will do so as pioneers.
They are the first students from the Heartland Academy for Learning Opportunities to take part in the college's graduation ceremonies and the first HALO students to earn a Certificate of Achievement in Life Skills Development.
The HALO program serves students with intellectual disabilities wanting to continue their education after high school in what the college describes as “a supportive yet challenging learning environment.”
Like others among the approximately 128 students expected to take part in Saturday afternoon's commencement, Bauersfeld and Lott have proud parents behind them.
Also like their fellow students, Bauersfeld and Lott also are hoping to get jobs.
Cheryl Surratt, the program's team leader, said the goal of the program is to help students “become independent and we hope they become gainfully employed,” but there are no job guarantees.
Bauersfeld, who has Down syndrome, likes anything related to sports, animals or helping people. While at Heartland, he has worked with a number of sports teams, particularly the baseball team.
Lott, who has autism, likes office work and computers. He completed an internship at Country Financial, working with computers, filing and data entry.
Jennifer Bauersfeld, Seth's mother, said the HALO program came in “just the nick of time” as her son was finishing high school and “we reached the junction where we weren't sure what's next.”
Watching her son “as he moved forward with confidence and faith” has been “exceptionally rewarding,” she said. “It's been a dream come true.”
Gabrielle Lott-Rogers said her son, Robert, was diagnosed as autistic at age 3.
“They said this would never happen. They said he would probably never finish,” Lott-Rogers said. “I'm very proud of him and all he's done. And I'm grateful that they were wrong.”
The life skills certificate was created when the HALO program was recognized as a Comprehensive Transition and post-Secondary Program by the U.S. Education Department.
Previously, HALO students took classes with other HALO students and the program had its own graduation program for students proceeding through its Level 1 and Level 2 requirements.
Under the federally certified program, the students must complete 64 semester hours of coursework, half of which are earned in inclusive, academic classes with other Heartland Community College students. The other half involve life skills courses with other students with intellectual disabilities.
Because of the program's federal recognition, students are eligible for federal financial aid, such as Pell education grants, although not everyone qualifies, explained Barb Glover, a program assistant in disability support services at Heartland.
HALO courses cost $200 per credit hour; tuition varies for non-HALO courses, such as audit, credit and developmental education.
Bauersfeld is not new to the pioneer role.
The 2010 graduate of Olympia High School was the first student in the district with Down syndrome to be in an inclusive class. The inclusive education was something his parents talked about with then-Olympia school district Superintendent Carol Struck when Seth was only 6 months old.
Lott-Rogers said “resources were not readily available” when her son, a 2008 graduate of Normal Community West High School, was first diagnosed more than 20 years ago, but “we learned as much as we could."
When she moved to Bloomington-Normal, she got involved in the McLean County Autism Society.
“I'm doing my part, finding out where the gaps are and trying to find resources to fill them.”