Casie Cotton and Alexandra Ling are friends who go to movies and yoga classes together. They both love horses and share an interest in jewelry making.
"I like her. She's smart and she takes me everywhere," said Cotton, a 27-year-old Black Hills Works client who has had an intellectual disability since infancy.
But Ling, a freshman mechanical engineering student at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and Cotton might never have crossed paths, except for a new volunteer opportunity at the university called Mines Buddies. Since January, Mines Buddies has been pairing intellectually disabled young adults, ages 18-28, with student friends enrolled at Mines.
It's a partnership whose purpose is to offer "buddies" like Cotton a chance to have peer-group experiences with people in their own age bracket. It also gives Mines students an awareness of disabilities and another avenue to fulfill the university's Students Emerging as Professionals (STEPS) vision. But Ling says it's really simpler than all that.
"We just go and do fun stuff together," said Ling. She and Cotton have been to the movies, to Rapid City Rush games and to a campus yoga class. "It's a good outlet for me and I’m sure it's fun for her, too. That’s what it's all about, really."
Cotton and Kai Knutsen, 27, are two of 10 buddies in the pilot program that was developed by Knutsen's mother, Janice. Knutsen won a $15,000 grant from the South Dakota Council on Developmental Disabilities to launch Mines Buddies, which she patterned after Lunch Buddies, a more narrowly focused lunch-period program she developed at Central High School when her daughter was a student there.
"It all revolves around this Life College idea," said Knutsen, speaking of a national movement to bring developmentally disabled young adults on to college campuses to give them a more typical experience for their age. A former German language teacher at Mines, Knutsen was sure the students there would be great partners.
"I just knew it was going to go. I knew that from working there," she said. "Mines students tend to be very responsible."
Students like Ling can receive volunteer credit for community service, and their buddies from Black Hills Works get a chance to socialize with college-aged friends, something that they might otherwise never do, Knutsen said.
Social isolation can be a problem for young adults like her daughter, said Carol Cotton.
"She gets to get out and socialize with people her own age," Cotton said. "It's been great, because it also gives us parents a break."
Casie Cotton's desire for friendship speaks to Ling's heart. So does the wish that she, too, could attend college.
"I’ve seen them bullied so many times throughout school. They’re kind of misunderstood," she said about people with intellectual disabilities.
Cotton does custodial work at LaCrosse Estates, where she lives independently in her own apartment. "I always want to go to school there, sometime," she said of the Mines campus.
"The thing is, she'd like to go to college, too," Ling said. "We try to offer a little more of the college experience to individuals who can't go to college."
Football games and other athletic events on campus are common outings, and the grant pays for movie tickets, Rush games, concerts and more. Some Mines Buddies went to "Beauty and the Beast," a Broadway Series performance, last weekend. Donations, including $3,000 from the singing group T.R.A.S.H. and $1,000 from the Independent Insurance Agents of Rapid City, have also extended the program.
The grant also pays a small salary for student director Kylie Berger.
"Kylie is really the crux of the program," said Knutsen.
As director, Berger connects students and buddies with each other and with possible campus and community events happening each week. The freedom to schedule volunteer work around their own busy lives appeals to Mines students, Berger said.
Some Mines professors require community service as a class component, and the university has a non-credit program, STEPS, that encourages young engineering candidates to become involved in professional organizations and communities.
Mines Buddies' mission pairs well with the tenants of STEPS, Knutsen said. Those are:
- Engage in lifelong learning.
- Apply technical understanding.
- Serve the community.
- Value a global perspective.
- Lead and serve on teams.
- Respect self and others.
- Act with integrity.
Ling expects to stay involved with Mines Buddies, and Cotton, until she graduates in 2015.
"Definitely, I plan to be involved in this for as long as I can. I consider her a friend," she said of her buddy, Cotton.