Lesley’s Threshold Program helps equip people with diverse learning challenges and disabilities to live independent lives, and on July 5 a delegation of six Russian educators, nonprofit leaders and social entrepreneurs visited campus to learn how they might incorporate similar curricula in their country.
The visit, sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, is part of a multi-week tour of programs, schools and facilities that work with people with disabilities. It is the second such foreign delegation that has toured Threshold. In February, administrators from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila, Philippines, also came to learn how our program fosters inclusivity and independence.
The Filipino contingent was focused exclusively on college students, but the Russian visitors work in a variety of contexts. Elvira Parfenova is part of a Moscow-based nonprofit that helps the deaf and blind. Mariia Smotrikovskaia of Vladivostok founded School of Friendship, an organization that helps children on the autism spectrum. Another member of the delegation is a social entrepreneur who supports charitable projects, while still another works to establish employment opportunities for disabled adults.
As the oldest and largest college-based program of its kind in the country, Threshold’s model has much to offer overseas organizations, says Director Ernst VanBergeijk.
“What we do is offer them hope, offer them a role model, so they can see where they could be in a few years,” he says.
Explaining Threshold’s structure, VanBergeijk told the Russians that they target the “betwixt and the between” – students who fall into a resource gap. Their disabilities do not qualify them for significant government support, yet they are also unable to attend a traditional four-year college and are unready to enter the workforce. At Lesley, the students, ages 18 to 26, study subjects that are both academic and practical such as managing a budget, sexual health, how to find employment and early childcare coursework. Internships also help students find jobs they will enjoy.
“Offering people with disabilities opportunities for education and employment just helps everybody in general,” said VanBergeijk. “If those folks aren’t employed, we have to support them through tax dollars.
“Folks with disabilities are super loyal employees. We save businesses millions of dollars a year because our guys have low turnover.”
The visitors wanted to know about every aspect of the Threshold program, including the outcomes, employment statistics, tuition costs and the origin of the curricula. Some members of the group were interested in using Threshold’s model in their settings.
“Their questions were really spot on,” VanBergeijk said. He added that Threshold would be interested in franchising material, speaking at conferences and providing other support to improve the lives of people with disabilities overseas.
That’s a common goal for the Russian group and Threshold.
During the U.S. trip, which also included a tour of Perkins School for the Blind and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, Parfenova said she was encouraged to encounter so many people with disabilities in the workplace.
“We hope one day we will be able to do the same,” she said.