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Chestnut Hill College Receives $1M RACP Grant to Help Fund New Neurodiversity Initiatives 

Chestnut Hill College Receives $1M RACP Grant to Help Fund New Neurodiversity Initiatives 

Chestnut Hill College, through the support and partnership of Pennsylvania State Representative, Chris Rabb, received a $1M Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant to help fund improvements needed to the SugarLoaf Campus to host the College’s new Neurodiversity Life Skills through Career Program.  Sister Carol Jean Vale and Representative Chris Rabb were all smiles during the check presentation.

“The Life Skills through Career Program at Chestnut Hill College focuses on an individual’s strengths and interests, using a neurodiversity affirming lens to tailor an unparalleled experience on campus,” says Laura Sibbald, M.A., CCC-SLP, ASDCS, CYMHS, Associate Director of the Center for Accessibility and Learning Services, and Neurodiversity Initiatives at Chestnut Hill College. “This program exemplifies the fact that CHC celebrates students with different abilities and seeks to empower all students to reach their full and unique potential.” 

According to the Pennsylvania Autism Census conducted in 2014, Philadelphia has the second-largest population among Pennsylvania counties of autistic individuals receiving services at a number of over 4,100. However, many of those individuals are cut off from access to support through educational and behavioral health systems when they turn 21. This lack of access to services is not a problem that just Philadelphia or even Pennsylvania faces.  

Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network shows that approximately one in every 44 children born in 2010 is identified as autistic, a significant increase from approximately one in every 88 children being diagnosed as autistic in the decade prior. As this number has continued to increase so too has the need for more services and programming made available to children and their families, especially as those children navigate college and adulthood.  

With this in mind, Chestnut Hill College conceptualized the Neurodiversity Life Skills through Career Program, which is one of the only programs of its kind in Philadelphia. The two-year residential program is designed to assist neurodiverse individuals in their transition to adulthood, employment, and independent living. Participants in the program will develop and enhance their skills in addition to receiving support and customized work opportunities, enabling them to continue as productive members of their communities. Family services, such as seminars, outings, therapy, support groups, and respite care also will be provided through this unique life skills program.  Members of the Neurodiversity Team joined College mascot Big Griff, Sister Carol, and Rep Rabb to celebrate the grant and the opportunities it will provide at an event on April 28th at SugarLoaf.

“The Life Skills Through Career Program is unique in that its focus is vocational, based on One’s Greatest Skill – finding an individual’s passion,” says Stephen Stunder, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, Director of the Human Services Management Graduate Program and Assistant Professor of Human Services at Chestnut Hill College. “The focus is on Family Systems, as well as independent and interdependent living.  We want our individuals to live a life of their choosing – not just teaching them how to work, but how to live.” 

In order to bring the Neurodiversity Life Skills Through Career Program to fruition, Chestnut Hill College sought state level funding through RACP. The funds from the $1M grant mark the first major gift toward CHC’s Neurodiversity initiative and will help address the needs of the participants in the program.  

This grant will allow Chestnut Hill College to begin renovating existing structures on the SugarLoaf Campus in order to provide lodging and instructional space for vocational life skills training, counseling, and support groups; office space for program personnel; recreational spaces and more such as a kitchen, laundry area, renovated heated pool for aquatic therapy, and social space to help participants develop interdependent and dependent skills and skills for individual living. The proposed renovations also will make the SugarLoaf Campus fully ADA accessible.   

“The opportunities this funding provides for neurodiverse individuals and their families are tremendous,” says Mark Meachem, Ed.D., Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. “What is really special about this program is how organic it has been. This was a faculty-driven initiative that aligned perfectly with our mission at the College. We are here to serve the Dear Neighbor and the funding from the RACP grant can help us begin to realize our goal of assisting the growing neurodiverse population to help them develop the skills and vocational training they need to live independent or interdependent lives.” 

Through the support of local legislators including Rep. Rabb and State Senator Art Haywood, Chestnut Hill College has received several previous RACP grants in addition to the one for the Neurodiversity Life Skills Through Career Program. These grants have helped fund several major College initiatives including renovations to student spaces, elevators on campus, and brand new, state-of-the-art classroom spaces equipped with smart technology.  Dr. Stephen Stunder joined members of the Neurodiversity Team in offering tours of the SugarLoaf Campus.

“We must celebrate and appreciate everyone’s inherent value including our neighbors and loved ones who are neurodiverse,” states Rep. Rabb, who is Chair of the Equity Committee and a member of the Behavioral Health/Intellectual Disability Caucus. “The Neurodiversity Life Skills through Career Program is taking necessary steps in ensuring that every community member has a voice to ensure agency over their goals and aspirations. All aspects of the program align with the equity values I have championed.” 

Work on the improvements to the SugarLoaf Campus that will underlie the foundation of this program is already underway, thanks to additional funding raised through an earlier phase of this project. This funding included $2.8 million in Department of Economic and Community Development Multimodal Transportation Fund grants, $115,000 in Greenway, Trails, and Recreation Program grants, and $450,000 from the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation. In all, the College has raised $7.7 million towards the initiative to build a safe and accessible entryway.  

“I am deeply grateful to Representative Rabb and Senator Haywood who are always ready partners working with us to advance the good work of the College,” says Chestnut Hill College President, Sister Carol Jean Vale, Ph.D., SSJ. “In this instance, Representative Rabb secured funds to support our neurodiversity initiative, which is designed to meet the growing need to provide meaningful and effective educational programming for those who have autism. With the help of this RACP grant, the College is on its way to offering a holistic, transformative life experience for students on the spectrum.” 

Visit www.chc.edu/neurodiversity to learn more about the Neurodiversity Life Skills through Career Program and other neurodiversity initiatives currently underway at Chestnut Hill College.   

- Marilee Gallagher '14 

Posted In: Features