With a bright green feather boa wrapped around her shoulders, first-year marketing major Bailey Kreinbrink grabs her masquerade mask she made moments ago.
She joins a photo booth group made up of other students, Baldwin Life Enrichment Center (LEC) staff and more than 20 community members with disabilities. Tonight, they’re crowning a king and queen that will lead them in a parade through the LEC, decorated in the royal tones of Mardi Gras.
“In high school I took a couple classes that allowed me to work with people who had disabilities, so this isn’t entirely new to me,” Kreinbrink said.
Kreinbrink is one of a group of GC1Y students who volunteer at the Baldwin Life Enrichment Center, a nonprofit that provides diverse programming for adults with intellectual disabilities in the local area. With the help of GC faculty, the LEC recently secured a grant that funds activities like the Feb. 28 Mardi Gras party.
Students volunteer by being engaged with the adults with disabilities. Many times students will lead arts and crafts lessons, pick up a sport with LEC members or join in on a music therapy session.
“One of my favorite parts about this GC1Y class is being able to interact with local community members one-on-one like this,” said Kreinbrink. “What I enjoy is that individuals with disabilities always seem to be more loving, open and caring—those are lessons that everyone needs to learn.”
Dr. Nicole DeClouette, associate professor of special education, created the GC1Y course Representations of Ability and Disability five years ago. She saw first-year students in disciplines that would eventually need the skill of working with people with disabilities— but weren’t getting the experience. For many, this class will be their only exposure to this group before they begin their careers, says DeClouette.
“It’s different from other classes that they’re used to,” said DeClouette. “What they’re learning in this course is a life skill that they can use in their careers, but also for the rest of their lives.”
First-year athletic training major Sophia LaMarca says using skills learned in DeClouette’s class and putting them into action at the LEC has changed the way she sees education.
“It’s one thing to be able to sit down and be told you have to do something,” she said, “but this experience benefits not only others, but myself. I see it as so much more than community service—it’s enriching and powerful.”
Barbara Coleman, executive director of the LEC, has seen the partnership between her organization and Georgia College grow in the past 17 years. She says without faculty and students, the LEC wouldn’t be able to provide the level of programming it currently does.
“The students need experience and opportunities and what they find here is that and more,” Coleman said. “I ask them what they want to get from here—so it’s not like they’re free labor—it’s reciprocal. I want them to dream big, try new things and use all the skills at the LEC that they’re learning in the classroom. And use those skills without fear of failure.”
LaMarca says the opportunity to meet more community members and to familiarize herself with a whole new group of people, has been the highlight of her time in the GC1Y course.
“I feel the takeaway for me is knowing there are different parts of your community that you’re not always aware of,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you ignore them. You have to find ways to involve them no matter if it’s something you’re comfortable with or not. It’s important.”
While GC1Y students do volunteer at the LEC, the collaboration doesn’t stop there. Other disciplines along with the student organization Best Buddies, which creates opportunities for one-on-one friendships between students and community members with intellectual disabilities, also volunteer at the Center.
“Students have a new respect for individuals at the Center,” said Coleman. “They get to see that they’re photographers, dancers, singers, athletes—they’re everything that anyone else can be. They just do it a little differently.”