On a blustery October afternoon, dozens of balls and beanbags zing across the gym in New Hampshire Hall. A rowdy bunch of college kids fling and hurl, duck and dodge. Some get help with their aim. A few are unsteady on their feet. But everyone's laughing. "This is the first time I've interacted with people with disabilities," says Justin Walker '14, a physical education major. He jumps as a low-flying ball whizzes past. "It took awhile to get used to, but I love it."
Heidi Whitty Chase '87, '95G stands in the midst of the bedlam looking pleased. This is just what she had in mind when she founded the Wildcat Friends project for disabled young adults. "Not only do they have a blast together," she says, "but they learn new things and interact with a great bunch of UNH volunteers." The Friends project, which began in 2000 as a social group for disabled students at Portsmouth High School, expanded in 2009 to include a college program—the only one of its kind in the country.
Today, Wildcat Friends spend two afternoons a week at UNH getting a taste of campus life. "I don't know what we'd do without it," says Leslie Lewis Tufts '74, noting that life for kids with disabilities can be excruciatingly lonely after elementary school. Play dates stop. Friends drift away. Eventually, the Tufts and their son, Matthew, watched as his peers went off to college. For Matthew, who felt left behind, Wildcat Friends opened up a new world.
After their gym session, the group heads to a science class taught by fifth-grade teacher Sheana Thorell '94, '97G, who uses songs and drama to help students act out the different functions of a cell. Like all the program instructors, Thorell tailors her teaching specifically for her students. Another day, just before Halloween, the Wildcat Friends meet up with Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers for some pumpkin carving. "If anything, they do more for us than we do for them," says Tyler Allen '13, as he scoops orange slime from his jack o' lantern. "It's a great way to take a step back and look at your humanity."
For the parents of those who participate in Wildcat Friends, it doesn't matter that their children aren't earning degrees or planning for careers. What matters is the experience. They get to wear UNH sweatshirts, walk the campus paths, and exchange high-fives with friendly students. They get to socialize and exercise. Most of all, they get a sense of belonging. When Sharon Haggard picked up her son, Steven, from his first day on campus, he said something she never thought she'd hear: "Mom," he told her proudly, "I'm a college man now."Return to UNH Magazine Campus Currents