Photo of UWO academy partnership

The Thrive Career Academy at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Fox Cities campus offers valuable lessons beyond the classroom―for both university students and clients in the community program.

Thrive participants have the chance to practice life skills, such as purchasing items from the café or bookstore on campus, and future teachers gain valuable real-world experience.

In 2014, a partnership between UWO Fox Cities (previously UW-Fox Valley), Valley Packaging Industries (VPI) in Appleton and United Way Fox Cities brought the Thrive program to the local campus. Thrive provides a complete educational experience with classroom and hands-on employment training in soft skills and workplace professional behaviors for individuals with cognitive disabilities. The goal is transitioning participants into job placement opportunities.

“I think of the campus as the third teacher in the classroom and there are many benefits that go along with it,” Thrive instructor Monica Allaback said. “It is its own learning community that happens to be very safe and gentle. It allows my students the opportunity to socialize and engage with college students. Both groups of students experience the same outcome, but through a different lens or filter. The college students gain experience with someone they may or may not have been exposed to in the past, as do my students.”

Service hours equal fun activities

Education majors in classes taught by Tammy Ladwig, UWO psychology and education associate professor on the Fox Cities campus, must log 12 hours of service to earn a service-learning designation in the course. Most of those hours are done working with adults in the Thrive program.

When the students in Ladwig’s class first hear the requirement, some show reluctance to participate. By the end of the semester, Ladwig sees the students fully engaged and (pre-COVID) planning holiday parties, leading strong bones activities in the fieldhouse, organizing theater outings, leading sessions in dance instruction or planning bowling experiences. Soon, other Fox Cities campus students not enrolled in the class asked Ladwig if they could help lead activities, too.

Several UWO Fox Cities students continue to volunteer their time with the Thrive clients long after they have left the campus.

“That’s how impactful it was. They aren’t required to, they are just called,” Ladwig said. “Very often students will not have had any (previous) interaction with someone with cognitive disabilities. It’s very impactful to work with them.”

Former Fox Cities campus student and current UW Oshkosh elementary education major Michael Hayes, of Laguna Hills, California, served as a volunteer in the Thrive program because the experience will be valuable in his future classroom.

“Working with the Thrive class for the first time was eye opening,” Hayes said in an interview last semester. “The most important thing I learned by working with the students in Thrive is that there is nothing to be afraid of. I feel like students are often afraid of doing or saying something wrong. As future teachers we never want to hurt people in any way. People are afraid of the unknown, and the best way to fix that is to gain experience. Thrive gave that experience and removed the unknown for me.”

Special people

Due to coronavirus, the students have not been allowed this semester to volunteer in the classroom. Allaback said they are sure to be invited back when it is possible.

Annaliese Wilmsen, of Appleton, a former Fox Cities campus student and current UW Oshkosh elementary education major, said the people in the Thrive program are what makes it such a special place.

“Every time I have the opportunity to attend Thrive, there is such a genuine, mutual excitement to be reunited with my friends, which I think is sometimes a rare thing to find in this digital world,” Wilmsen said in an interview before COVID-19 struck. “Every student has such a contagious, exuberance for life, which is inspiring. This unique, uplifting environment is why I love to spend my time there.”

In a typical year, a celebration is held in spring to recognize Thrive participants who successfully complete their series of classes. A special graduation ceremony held in the Fox Cities Campus Student Union has brought together campus faculty, students and staff, community partners and the families of the Thrive graduates. Though postponed for 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak, it is hoped a graduation ceremony can be held in spring 2021.

Job placement

An important goal of Thrive Academy is to find community employment for clients in the program. Prior to the pandemic, Fox Cities campus had two Thrive placements, one in the Solution Center and one in the building and grounds department. Recently, the Fox Cities campus hired former Thrive Academy intern Trevor Tanner as a groundskeeper.

He was the first full-time, permanent employee hired by the campus as a result of the continuing partnership. Tanner previously worked three summers on the campus in a seasonal position.

Funding for the program is from the United Way and long-term care providers.

The Thrive partnership has been a win-win.

“I witnessed students continually step out of their comfort zones and try new things ,which showed me courage and the importance of taking risks in order to grow as a person,” Wilmsen said. “Working with the Thrive students made me a more versatile and understanding teacher, a more curious and educated student, and a more caring and empathetic person.”

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