Lesley’s Threshold Program has received a philanthropic gift of $1 million from donors Chris Gaffney and Karen Kames, whose daughter Olivia Gaffney is a second-year student from Threshold, a certificate program designed to support students with diverse learning challenges. With a need for scholarship and operational support, Gaffney and Kames's gift will provide scholarships for two students and will fund a new staff member in the Alumni Center.
“A program like this can change someone’s life,” says Program Director Ernst VanBergeijk. “Each year, the demand for scholarships exceeds what we’re able to offer. With a gift like this, we’re able to increase our ability to reach students from different backgrounds and income levels and give them access to an education that will make it possible for them to be employed, to be independent.”
Kames, who graduated from Lesley in 1983 with a Masters in Education, knew that Threshold would be the right fit for her daughter as she charted her path towards adulthood. “When we were looking at programs for Olivia, we looked at a number of schools, but Lesley was the only one that offered the kind of 360-degree support that we were looking for.” Threshold students live in dormitories on campus, forming supportive connections with each other while learning a range of important life skills, from handling their own finances to entering the work world. Students learn to manage everyday tasks like shopping, laundry and cooking and to develop social skills that help them form and maintain relationships with roommates, colleagues and friends. Weekly community meetings help students problem-solve and find support as they adjust to living on their own.
For Olivia, being a part of the Threshold program has been life changing. Eager for independence but anxious about leaving her close-knit family, Olivia overcame her initial homesickness and quickly grew to enjoy campus life and a circle of new friends. Over 18 months she has learned to live on her own, getting herself to classes, the dining hall and the gym and navigating Boston and Cambridge by public transportation. She holds two part-time internships at Lesley’s Office of Advancement and at the Boston Medical Center’s Autism Clinic.
“It was an amazing first year,” says her father. “It was her first time living away from us — she’s the baby of the family. For 21 years, she was never in the house alone — to go from that to living in a dorm full-time, independently … it’s a huge leap. She came home at the holidays and was a different person. And she continues to mature and to increase the aperture of her independence.”
Gaffney and Kames were also impressed by Threshold’s Alumni Center, which is designed to serve graduates throughout their lives, whether they need help finding a job or housing, navigating social issues at work or at home or even planning for retirement.
“The really vibrant alumni presence and the way the center is set up to support them for the rest of their lives was very appealing to us,” says Kames. “So many graduates live and work in the area — their social hubs extend from the alumni center so that when they need a new job, a new roommate, they have somewhere to go.”
Gaffney and Kames knew that they wanted to help the program, but they weren’t sure how.
“We sat down with Ernst and Cara (Gorham Streit, associate director of the Threshold Program) and said ‘what do you need?’ and they took some time to think about it and came back to us with these two top priorities — scholarships and expanding the services at the alumni center. It was great because they were two very concrete things that we could help with.”
“Chris and Karen’s magnificent gift relates directly to Lesley’s fundamental values by providing access to education for deserving students from diverse backgrounds and by serving the evolving needs of Threshold alumni,” says Tim Cross, vice president for Institutional Advancement. “We cannot thank them enough for their vision and generosity.”
“This commitment by Chris and Karen represents a significant investment in the future of Threshold, a signature Lesley program,” adds Interim President Richard Hansen. “It will enable and support the success of generations of Threshold students and their families as they engage with the challenges of living independently.”
Gaffney and Kames were happy to know that their gift would benefit the program immediately.
“We would love to see the program grow. We very much look at it in a tangible way, in that two young people will be able to go and enjoy this amazing experience and develop and become independent. In a world of sometime nebulous philanthropy, it feels good to focus on the tangible and to be able to make a difference right away.”
“I can’t overstate how impactful this gift is to our community,” says Gorham Streit, who also manages the alumni program. “It’s going to make a life-changing experience possible for students from very low-income backgrounds, and it doesn’t stop there. It will also fund continuing supports for those same students, and for hundreds of others, once they graduate and begin to navigate the world as independent adults. This gift will directly lift, and keep, young people with disabilities out of poverty. That’s pretty special.”