Innovative partnership at ETSU is producing real-world change

Published 10:08 am Thursday, May 9, 2024

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He has provided tailored assistance and support to students with various learning needs in undergraduate courses. He has offered social and emotional assistance, championed the needs of students, and encouraged autonomy and self-assertion.

East Tennessee State University student Charles Walters now has an academic year’s worth of experience in issues of student equity and inclusion.

“The students I worked with taught me how to be more self-accepting and relaxed,” said Walters, majoring in pre-physical therapy. 

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That is thanks to an innovative partnership between Tennessee Community Assistant Corporation AmeriCorps members and the office of Access ETSU, a respected service that has provided critical support to young adults with intellectual disabilities over the past five years.

“This is a wonderful example of how our students or community members earn hands-on experiences that result in a real-world impact,” said Teresa Brooks Taylor, an assistant professor of human services who helped coordinate the project. “Serving with AmeriCorps is a win-win as members gain valuable skills and experiences. It can also assist them in advancing their education pathway.” 

The initiative, called Community Cares AmeriCorps, addresses some of the most diverse and major problems in rural communities. The program features many elements, including assisting seniors and people with disabilities who want to live independently. Services include food and nutrition support, social interactions, community involvement, transportation and more.  

“What an ambitious career path to begin by helping others achieve their goals while successfully gaining professional development experience,” said Becca Grubb, AmeriCorps program director. “The endless possibilities provided by the earned educational award after service completion help many reach the graduation stage and step into their future endeavors. There is a balanced commitment and investment between all partners to secure meaningful outcomes, new ideas and sustain efforts to enhance the overall value proposition for students.”

Through Community Cares AmeriCorps, ETSU students serve as peer mentors for individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as support personnel for Bucky’s Food Pantry, a service lauded by leaders at the university and in the region.   

Access ETSU, celebrated by faculty, staff and state and national leaders, has worked for years to support those with intellectual disabilities at ETSU.

Last year, the program earned an impressive grant from the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to continue its mission of serving the university and the region. 

The $400,000, three-year grant is aimed at guiding students into competitive employment and community living. 

“One of the core values at ETSU is making sure all people feel a sense of belonging, and Access ETSU has worked tirelessly to make that a reality for students with disabilities,” said Dr. Melody Blevins, project manager for Access ETSU. “These peer mentors are invaluable, and we could not provide high-quality support to students without peer mentors in general.” 

Peer mentors receive individualized training and professional development aimed at strengthening their own résumés and supporting their career goals.

“For example, a current member reached out to me recently to help problem-solve a specific situation,” said Blevins. “I was able to provide some individualized support to him and the student.”

ETSU nursing student Kinsey Stevens said she has enjoyed an array of opportunities.

“I have learned time management with planning my volunteer hours out, and how to build better personal relationships with students,” said Stevens. “Building friendships also came through this experience, and I enjoyed getting to know the other service members and Access students.”