ORANGE CITY, Iowa (KCUA) — For a child with disabilities, what comes after high school? It’s a question a college in Orange City is working to answer.

The Northwestern College NEXT program started back in 2016 where they had one student. Today in 2021, they have 10 students enrolled learning inside the classroom as well as gaining hands-on experience with job opportunities.

“They include me in like, who I am and they don’t treat me any differently, so that’s really nice,” said Makenzie Vanderhaar and Taylor Hudson, students inside the NEXT program.

Vanderhaar and Hudson have focused their studies in the education field.

“So, I’m going to be a Para, and my friend McKenzie and I are doing early field experience at the same time at the same elementary school and it’s so much fun,” said Vanderhaar and Hudson.

The program is aimed at opening doors for students to gain internships, job opportunities, and the ability to grow as individuals.

“Experience dorm life, experience going to classes with peers, and we also teach them some classes in life skills, careers, and in wellness,” said John Menning, the Director of the NEXT program.

“The independence piece is huge and we see a huge uptick in self-confidence, growth in that self-confidence, as well as just their general well-being as an adult,” said Samantha Martin, the
Assistant Director of the Next Program.

Educators are not only focused on helping students with disabilities reach their full potential but also giving outside students hands-on experience to help special needs students.

“We have over 70 mentors in the program and that really makes the program go. they provide assistance in the classes,” said Menning.

“I run the PE class for them, and I usually do it Monday Wednesday at night and another student started it to do her practicum hours but I took over it this semester. I just love working with them and it’s helping prepare me for my future career, so it is a win-win,” said Julia Zora, a Student Mentor for the NEXT program.

Three of the students will be graduating in May and walking away with a certificate of achievement it’s a step to help prepare them for their next chapter in life.