When we decided we were going to pursue a program at Judson University for students with intellectual disabilities a few of us took a trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota to visit Bethel University’s BUILD program. The BUILD program, which was in its first year, was the closest model of what we wanted the Judson program to look like. Gayle, who had the idea to start the program, Judson’s President, Provost, and Vice President for Student Life and myself spent a day observing classes, meeting the students and talking with Dawn, the director of the program. Our goal was to find out what it would take to get a program like this started at Judson.
We learned so much that day. Bethel runs an outstanding program and in just their first year they were executing at a high level. We learned about the services we would need to provide for the students, the details of their curriculum, the mentor program, their dorm life and the internship process. But the thing we learned the most was not the practical knowledge of how to run the program. We quickly realized that the most important thing we needed to do was find an amazing director to run the program. And I stress amazing. Dawn was an impressive leader of the BUILD program and being at the head of this well-run initiative was no small task. There are so many hats this person has to wear to serve these students and there are many unexpected challenges and scenarios that can come their way. This person has to have so much knowledge about the world of disabilities and the capacity to provide for so many different types of people. For our program at Judson to run well and be excellent we needed to find the perfect person. And that was no small task.
It was the assignment of Gayle and I to make this hire and we were not sure where to start. We began putting together the extensive job description and it only confirmed to us more and more that this person would need to be a superstar. Our dream of having this high-quality program would only be as good as the person who was leading it.
During the process of creating the job responsibilities Gayle told me that the name Kathy Lambert had been laid on her heart. She did not know exactly why and she didn’t really even know her very well but she felt like she needed to learn more about her.
Kathy was the Assistant Director of the Penguin Project at Willow Creek Community Church. She had helped start this drama ministry for people with intellectual disabilities at the church years ago and it was a smashing success. Gayle knew of her because her daughters are a part of this program. That is the limited knowledge she had about her.
Gayle tracked down her number and invited her to have coffee. And she accepted. Gayle started the conversation telling her she was not exactly sure why she was supposed to meet with her but she felt led to do so. She literally sat down and said, “tell me about yourself”. Kathy went on to tell Gayle that she had just quit working in the corporate world after 33 years and downsized her house because she wanted to do something that she was more passionate about and that gave her more meaning in her life even if she didn’t make as much money as she did before. She said that after doing some career coaching she figured out that working with people with disabilities is her passion and brings her the most joy. As you can imagine, Gayle was bursting inside. Kathy told her that she had recently done the training to get certified in person-centered planning so she could help people with disabilities find competitive employment. She had been slowly beginning the process of starting her own business that would serve these people in the community in this way.
What???!?! Those are the exact goals of the program we desired to start! This is our person!
Gayle nearly offered her the job on the spot she was so excited. Actually I think she did. Kathy has the administrative and strategic skills that she had gained in her years in the corporate world to make a great leader. She has the passion and sincere personality to connect with the families and the students. She had the training and knowledge of all the aspects of planning and preparing students for employment and independent living. And she lives five minutes from campus in her new quaint farm house. It truly could not be a more perfect fit.
Except, she was not sure she wanted the job. She had a plan and she thought it was best for her to stick to starting her own business. That’s not what we wanted to hear.
But after some wise guidance from her husband and some coercing from Gayle, she eventually agreed to officially interview for the job. I knew instantly after meeting Kathy that she was the perfect fit, and she quickly fell in love with Judson and the vision we had for our program.
Kathy started leading the program a full year before we enrolled our first class and she lived up to the expectation we had of her. She spent the first year marketing the RISE program, assisting with fundraising, preparing Judson’s campus community and recruiting the first class. She is incredibly organized, strategic and concise with everything she does. Our program started just like we dreamed it would and so much credit goes to Kathy and the work she did in the preparation year.
And although that first year was crucial, it is the work she does with the students, now that they are on our campus, where she shines the most. She has taught me so much about inclusion of all people. She has educated our whole campus community about the fact that everybody has disabilities just some are more obvious than others. She cares for these students in such a special way and she embraces their unique gifts and gives them so much personalized attention. She advocates for them and believes in them. She takes late night phone calls, counsels, advises, helps navigate roommate issues, connects with parents, cares for students when they are sick and even attended the funeral of two of our students’ parents in just the first semester of the program. The work she does cannot be summarized in a job description. It’s a role that only someone like Kathy could live up to. She was the perfect choice as the first leader of this program.
I learned Kathy’s capability to treat these students with so much respect early on when she dealt with a situation with one of the students even before she moved on campus. After the overnight preview visit that all our 12 admitted students attended, one of our incoming female students acquired some phone numbers of some of our traditional students including a male student. After returning home she started texting this student in the following weeks. Unfortunately it became incessant and the student, although not minding some interaction, felt it was getting to be too much. Kathy alerted the mother of this issue and the mom was not surprised. She said that her daughter has a habit of doing this in the past with other people. She struggles with boundaries because she doesn’t understand. She was very apologetic and said she would delete his number from her phone. Kathy quickly told her not to do that and asked her to just speak with her about it and encourage her to not text as much and limit it during certain times of the day so this student could focus on his classes and homework. They agreed to check back on the situation in a week or so. The mom complied.
A week and a half later, Kathy followed up with the male student to see if the texting had become more appropriate. The student responded that she wasn’t texting him anymore. Kathy, was of course happy to hear the problem had been solved, but assumed the mom had deleted the number. But she had not deleted it. She took Kathy’s advice and spoke to her about respecting his time since he is busy in school. She then went on to applaud Kathy for the way she treated her daughter in this situation. She said that she always cringes when her daughter is given a new number from someone. She knows the direction it may go. Every time it does happen the person wants to be abruptly removed from her phone, like she is a bad person. Sometimes it is even her own relatives. She thanked Kathy for being the first person to ever say no, don’t remove the number and this allowed her to create a learning opportunity. This mom was so grateful that her daughter was treated with so much respect and given the chance to make the change on her own. And it worked.
There are countless stories like this. Kathy treats our students as people with abilities, not disabilities. Abilities to socialize and make friends, abilities to perform, abilities to display their strengths, abilities to fix mistakes, abilities to learn, abilities to grow and abilities to be independent and make a difference in the world.
I am forever grateful that Kathy brought our dream to life. She is the hands and feet of this rewarding endeavor and she has done it with so much grace and professionalism. I fervently pray that my son Cody has many people in his life like Kathy to believe in him and advocate for him so his gifts and strengths will be seen and embraced just like she does for all our RISE students.