Will Farrior (pictured on the right) was working the night shift at the Air Force base, scrubbing floors and dusting. His father had recently passed away unexpectedly, and Farrior, unable to focus, had stopped taking classes at Trident Technical College. Then Farrior traded the graveyard shift at the Air Force base for one at Walmart, stocking frozen food and dairy products. More relatives passed away. Farrior tried to take the late nights and personal losses in stride the best he could, but his grieving and personal accomplishment were hampered by the learning disability that has affected Farrior his entire life: Asperger syndrome. Still, he tried to see a silver lining.
“God was teaching me a lesson,” Farrior says. “Understand life. Get a dose of reality. Understand how other people live and other people learn.”
After graduating high school in 2004, Brian Porterfield (pictured on the left) moved between jobs, too, working at hair salons, movie theaters, fast food restaurants and retail stores. In these workplaces, just like in high school, Porterfield struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He could not adequately process the information he encountered each day.
“I’m scattered,” say Porterfield, describing his disability. “I’m focused on everything but not that one thing.”
Then each man received a phone call that changed his life. It was the College of Charleston ringing, informing Farrior and Porterfield they had been accepted into the inaugural class of the REACH Program, which teaches academic and life skills to students with mild intellectual disabilities. Upon hearing this news, Farrior screamed. Then he ran next door to his grandmother’s house and told her the news: He was college bound. The two cried tears of joy.
Porterfield was just as happy. In the fall of 2010, he and Farrior were among six students to enroll at the College and pursue a certificate through the REACH, or Realizing Educational and Career Hopes, Program. Four years later, Farrior and Porterfield are REACH’s first graduates. When they receive their certificates this May, they will do so as men transformed, ready to tackle the world with a confidence and understanding they had previously been lacking. As they venture off campus, too, the absence of their energy and enthusiasm will be felt. Few people in the College’s 244-year history have been more grateful to learn and live here.
Intellectual disabilities complicate nearly every aspect of adult life. Communication, in particular, is challenging, and can affect a disabled person’s ability to be independent and achieve goals. According to the College Transition Connection, which works with REACH and similar programs at other South Carolina universities to find meaningful work for disabled students, 92 percent of adults with intellectual disabilities are unemployed.
The REACH Program empowers its students by adapting the typical college experience to their individual needs. For four years REACH students attend regular classes, live on campus, join clubs and find internships. They also benefit from mentoring and tutoring, life skills instruction and monitoring from the REACH staff, led by director Edie Vardsveen Cusack ’90. Students’ living arrangements, academic goals and evaluation are customized according to their abilities.
For Porterfield, schoolwork had always been difficult. He struggled with shyness as a kid and young adult, too. But at the College, he learned how to better express himself. In particular, he and Farrior found that Professor Deb McGee’s communication courses helped them blossom socially and engage in meaningful dialogues.
“That was my problem, I was quick to talk and not to listen,” says Porterfield, who is from North Charleston. “I changed tremendously. I am now an advocate for myself and others. I’m kind of stronger mentally and physically.”
Outside of class, Porterfield has been active in the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity on campus as well as the student gospel choir. Upon graduation, he hopes to find work at a hotel. He also looks forward to traveling, having his own place and learning how to drive.
“Just being a human being,” Porterfield says of his aim in life. “The best human I am.”
Farrior, too, is a member of Alpha Kappa Psi. He was an RA, or resident advisor, interned with an afterschool leadership program at Metanoia, helped organize local Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, worked in the athletics department and participated as a leader in the College’s New Student Orientation. In February, Farrior testified before a U.S. Senate committee about the importance of adapting education models to include students with intellectual disabilities.
It might seem overwhelming, but Farrior says that he, Porterfield and their other REACH classmates have been determined to blend right in on campus and exploit every chance to broaden their worlds.
“We were a force to be reckoned with,” Farrior says of their arrival to the College. “We were not going to lay down like a puppy and get pushed around. We were going to hold our own.”
When Farrior graduates, he wants to mentor students, hoping to reciprocate the help he has received throughout his education. Beyond communication professor McGee, he credits psychology professor Cynthia May for helping him better manage life with Asperger’s.
“They tag-teamed and helped me change my mind,” says Farrior, who was born in New York and raised in Ravenel, S.C. “It’s truly a blessing to say I know myself.”
McGee recalls Farrior taking one of her classes, Interpersonal Communication. The young man always had something to say. Sometimes, he had too much to say. McGee worked with Farrior to become more concise and selective in his comments, as well as to better comprehend social cues and messages from others. To her delight, Farrior demonstrated marked improvement as he continued enrolling in McGee’s courses. Along the way, she witnessed an enthusiasm in her student that she found contagious.
“From Day One, Will just grabbed hold of every opportunity he could find on campus,” says McGee, who has a son with Asperger syndrome. “He’s been the most enthusiastic student, bar none, I’ve had in 10 years at the College.”
And Porterfield, whom she’s also taught, is less extroverted, but “the sweetest guy. He would do anything for you.”
As Farrior and Porterfield wrap up their College careers, they don’t seem too anxious about the future. They are mindful of the many changes that will come their way toward the end of school, but they are optimistic about what might be in store for them as well. They are self-assured, and such confidence has been created thanks to the support of their families and the College community.
“I’ve learned to see things and understand things in multiple ways,” says Farrior. “That’s the best thing about the College of Charleston. What you learn you can really apply to your life.”
Soon enough, Farrior and Porterfield will be looking dapper in white, summer jackets as they cross the Cistern stage on Mother’s Day weekend to receive their certificate from the College. After many years struggling to adapt to their disabilities, Farrior and Porterfield have been empowered by the REACH Program, and are ready to conquer the future.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” says McGee. “I’m going to cry so much at graduation. These kids have been given the chance to be independent. I think that is the biggest gift the REACH Program has given them.”