Column: Special-needs kids reach new heights

NYIT Vocational Independence Program students watch as their dean, Ernst VanBergeijk, scales a rock wall at the Baiting Hollow Scout Camp Friday. (Credit: Michael White)
NYIT Vocational Independence Program students watch as their dean, Ernst VanBergeijk, scales a rock wall at the Baiting Hollow Scout Camp Friday. (Credit: Michael White)

The students enrolled in the Vocational Independence Program at Central Islip’s New York Institute of Technology seem to adore their dean, Ernst VanBergeijk.

All of the three dozen-plus college-age kids have learning disabilities and/or autism spectrum diagnoses, and this past school year, they showed their respect for “Dean Ernst,” as they call him, by rising once again to his annual fitness challenge. 

Collectively, while being tracked by pedometers, they surpassed the goal of 62 million steps. That’s about what it would take to walk around the Earth.

For his part in the challenge, Dean Ernst agreed to scale a three-story rock wall Friday at the Baiting Hollow Boy Scouts camp.

When he got to the top, with the blue expanse of Long Island Sound in sight over the trees, the students below chanted to their beloved dean: “Jump! Jump! Jump! Jump!”

“Thank God I’m not literal,” he joked afterward.

In past years, after students have conquered the fitness challenge, the dean has swum with sharks, parachuted from an airplane and played softball dressed as a woman.

On Friday, he spoke a bit about the effort to keep the students fit, noting that children on the autism spectrum are 42 percent more likely to be obese.

“Since this is a developmental disability, and that’s for life, obesity is then potentially a lifetime issue, along with the health problems that come along with that,” he said. “So we try to help them develop healthy habits.”

The students in the VIP program don’t only learn good life habits, they’re taught how to drive cars and use mass transportation. And they live together on campus, in a college setting.

For 21-year-old Andy Ash of New Jersey, whose family summers in Orient, that’s been his favorite part of the experience.

“What I’ve enjoyed was, pretty much, being on your own and living on your own,” he said. “And also meeting people that you won’t like, but you had to get along with. There’s a lot of drama, but the thing is, you have to live with them and work it out like adults.”

Socializing is a huge part of what the program is about.

“I was just working with a student on an essay for a scholarship,” said Erin Vlasak of Manorville, VIP’s director of student services. “She said this was the first time in her life that she was able to live on her own and make friends. Not acquaintances. Not people you pass in the hallways at school and say hi. But actual friends.”

Making friends doesn’t come naturally to a lot of these kids, though, so the program holds social events like the Coffee House on Fridays, where the students perform music or stand-up comedy.

“On weekends, we’ll give them [social] cues,” Ms. Vlasak explained, such as urging a student to knock on another student’s door. Sometimes the staffers will give him or her a script to memorize, to ease the anxiety.

“They’ll come running back and say, ‘It worked! We’re going to hang out!’ ” she said. “And we just build on that.”

NYIT’s VIP program is a U.S. Department of Education-approved comprehensive transition and postsecondary (CTP) program, so some forms of financial aid are available to eligible students. But it’s just one of just three CTP programs in New York, and the only one with on-campus housing. Nearly half the students have been taking college classes at SUNY/Old Westbury. After graduation on May 14, Andy will be looking to transfer those credits to a community college and pursue a degree in computer science.

VIP student Ichanjweng “Icha” Awanga, 23, who’s from Cameroon, will be heading to Miami-Dade County in Florida for a degree in hospitality. He also raps and DJs.

Icha did his part to rise to the dean’s challenge by working out and going on “little runs.”

“Anything to get my body moving,” he said.

The VIP program’s primary goals are to get the students into college and/or full-time jobs — not volunteer or part-time — and get them living on their own. They often end up living with each other after graduation, the staffers say, or moving near each other.

Given all the staff that’s needed, the program is very expensive, costing $61,000 for an academic year. (There’s also a summer program for students ages 16 and up that’s $9,500 for seven weeks.)

Dean Ernst said the programs need to be looked at as wise investments. After all, having people employed throughout their long lives is less costly than a lifetime of aid through social services programs. Without intervention, these populations end up at 90 percent unemployment, he said, citing studies. But that figure gets flipped on its head for those who graduate from a CTP program.

The dean called the VIP program “Long Island’s best-kept secret,” even though it’s been operating since 1987.

“A generation ago, these same children would have been relegated to institutions away from the community,” he said, “and away from a fulfilling life.”

Michael White, editorMichael White is editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 298-3200, ext. 152.