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USF program for students with intellectual disabilities ready to grow, change more lives

Weeks ago, the program received a transformational $1.2 million donation
Posted at 7:48 AM, Oct 27, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Logan Lavery is living the life she never thought she’d live. She’s a college student at the University of South Florida’s St. Pete campus. She’s living in on-campus housing, making friends and joining campus groups like the dance and puppy lovers clubs.

Lavery, an outgoing 19 year old, is an inaugural student of USF’s UMatter program, which provides young people with intellectual disabilities “the learning, social skills and career training to set them up to be competitively employed and live independently.”

Lavery has become the program’s unofficial spokesperson.

“I am outgoing. Not shy at all,” she said with a smile. “And if you meet me, you’re going to love me a lot.”

The program was established in 2020 with the help of a $900,000 grant from the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities.

Since becoming a member of the inaugural class, Lavery says she’s already noticed results.

“It’s helped us to understand (who) we are, and it’s a really, really good support system,” she said.

Currently, the program is based on USF’s St. Pete campus, but now, the program is poised to expand to USF’s Tampa and Sarasota-Manatee campuses too.

On Sept. 30, the program announced a $1.2 million donation from Andrew and Eileen Hafer to benefit UMatter, which was renamed the Eileen Hoffman Hafer UMatter Program as a thanks for their philanthropy.

According to USF, the gift will also fund the Hafer Family Endowed Professorship for the program, an appointment created to provide ongoing support and mentorship to student participants like Lavery.

“I really, really want people to know about this group program, because this program has a good support system. If you need them, they are right there by your side every single moment of your day,” Lavery said.

Dr. Danie Roberts Dahm, the program’s director, says the donation will allow UMatter to change more lives and meet more of a need that’s currently unmet nationwide.

“We’re one of about 300 across the nation, which sounds like a lot, but it’s about 7% of colleges and universities that have one of these programs,” she said.

Dr. Lyman Dukes III, a special education professor at USF, says the program represents a full-circle transformation since the beginning of his career, when those with intellectual disabilities were oftentimes misunderstood and institutionalized.

“Individuals with intellectual disabilities, historically, haven’t been provided equal opportunity, and so to be in a place where we’re able to, you know, provide a program that results in equal education opportunity is really heartwarming,” he said.

Dukes says the inclusivity UMatter provides should produce concrete results.

“Students who are typically included are employed at much higher rates and much more often earn competitive wages as well,” the professor said.

After she graduates, Lavery has her sights set on a career that involves either children or animals.

For now, though, she’s focused on learning and enjoying the college life she never thought she’d experience.