Joselito "Josie" Torres is 19 years old, but until recently, he had never made a purchase at a store by himself. He had never ridden the subway, nor had he bought a ticket to a museum on his own. But when Torres attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education VAST LIFE program for teenagers with disabilities, that all changed.
VAST LIFE (which stands for Vocational Academic Social Skills Training Life Skills Independence Functional Experiences) is a program that pairs Penn graduate students with high school students ages 14-21 who have moderate to significant developmental and intellectual disabilities. The program helps graduate education students gain the experience they need to meet Pennsylvania requirements for special education certification and helps teenagers with disabilities become more independent.
Monica Page-Torres, Josie’s mother, said that the VAST LIFE program has helped her son in many ways.
“The program made him more independent. He was always very shy, but they taught him to communicate better by interacting with the other students. I’ve seen a change,” she said.
Page-Torres said that her son likes to do things on his own now, telling her “No, I can do it” when she offers to do something for him.
VAST LIFE was developed by Heather Hopkins, a Penn Graduate School of Education professor and leader of GSE’s special education curriculum. Hopkins, 44, has made participation in VAST LIFE a part of the curriculum for her students, providing them hands-on experience in helping teenagers with low-incidence disabilities, which are less frequent in a given population and usually need the most intervention.
The program, which began in 2013, is free of charge and open to high school students with disabilities from Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery Counties. Students interested in the program must take the Pennsylvania Alternative State Assessment test (PASA) and be identified as intellectually disabled. Each is then paired with a Penn graduate student to work with one-on-one during the program.
The program runs five Saturdays from January through May, each session lasting six hours. Each Saturday, the graduate and high school students head to a different location, such as the Penn Museum, Reading Terminal Market, and live performances.
Hopkins said that she started VAST LIFE as a way to bridge her students’ educational experience and the need for assisting high-school students with disabilities and their families. She said the program “allows the adolescents who are a part of it to experience parts of the city and to learn independence and to learn different life skills, all custom-made for them at the cost of the university.”
Hopkins said that she reaches out to school districts through email blasts to notify them of the program. Widener Memorial School, ASPIRA Olney Charter High School, and South Philadelphia High School are some of the Philadelphia schools whose students have participated.
Every year, alumni come back and work with VAST LIFE. Last October, Hopkins said, she sent out 65 emails to all the alumni listing the dates for the program and requesting volunteers. Within 15 minutes, she had 50 responses.
“I think that really speaks the impact that it has on them,” she said.
Nicole Kelly, 32, a graduate from the very first VAST LIFE class, is now a special education teacher in the Council Rock School District in Bucks County. She is also an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She returns to VAST LIFE every year to support the current graduate students.
“VAST LIFE provides graduate students the experience of working with students with low-incidence disabilities which is almost unheard of in most programs,” said Kelly.
She said that if not for VAST LIFE, she would be unable to successfully perform her job. Kelly said that VAST LIFE helped her discover her love for working in the low-incidence population.
She said VAST LIFE is important because "in terms of the students in which we teach, it gives them a sense of community and belonging.”
Jenna Albi, 24, is a more recent participant in the VAST LIFE program. She graduated from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 2017 and is currently a special education teacher at Mastery Charter School-Hardy Williams Campus in Southwest Philadelphia.
“I think VAST LIFE is important for a lot of reasons. One, because it serves children that have low-incidence disabilities and it teaches them how to be functioning independent members in the community,” Albi said.
“Also it gives people in the community a chance to be able to work with these kids in a way using patience.”
Hopkins said that she has seen many positive effects of the program.
“I have students, even students from Philadelphia, who have never taken public transportation. Students, even those in Philadelphia, who have never before crossed a street by themselves. It’s empowering the graduate students to realize that they can do this, and it’s also empowering families,” Hopkins said.
“I have mothers who will drop off their children and go for six hours and get a haircut, and they are so grateful because they’re just not used to having that time to themselves,” she said.
Page-Torres echoed the sentiment.
“[VAST LIFE] allows me to have a break. Parents need a break, and I don’t really get that. It really helps,” she said.
Hopkins said “the understanding that regardless of ability or disability, that everybody has value" is one of the most important lessons that everyone involved in the program can learn.
“From the graduate students to the adolescents to the families to the university to the alumni, it is one of these programs that was something that was created for a very clear purpose, to get individuals certified in special education, and wound up being a movement that has touched so many different stakeholders in so many different ways,” she said.
To learn more about VAST LIFE, click here.