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CCU Atheneum: Life Graduates: Gabriel Morin, Casey O'Connor and Denean Talarico
Life Graduates: Gabriel Morin, Casey O'Connor and Denean Talarico

CCU LIFE Program students let their caps fly

by Derrick Bracey
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This will be Coastal Carolina University’s biggest graduating class ever, with approximately 950 students. Somewhere in the line of caps and tassels, three students tread new ground. Gabriel Morin, Casey O'Connor and Denean Talarico are the first graduates of CCU’s LIFE program and they are eager to take on the world.

LIFE is an acronym for “Learning Is For Everyone.” The program provides educational and transitional opportunities for adults with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities to participate in a four-year, postsecondary education.

“It’s a chance for students who would not normally have the opportunity to experience college to get all the social and academic experiences that students who attend college get,” says Zan Wiggins, director of the program since 2011. “Additionally, we work with the students to make them as independent as they can be. The ultimate goal for students is to be able to live independently and have a job that will support them.”

In its fourth year of operation, this is the LIFE program’s first set of graduates. There are 11 total students in the program, and there are plans to admit eight more in the fall. “We want to grow some, but keep the program small enough where we can still have our students as integrated into the campus community as possible,” Wiggins says. “Our ultimate goals really depend on the students in the program. We adjust our program as needed, based on the student.”

But the experience doesn’t stop on CCU’s campus. “We want to be able to partner with other schools in the area,” Wiggins says. “Offer more opportunities to the students to receive training and certificates on specific skills.”

The students take five classes each semester, three academic and two electives. LIFE program coordinator Sandra Saunders says, “These are great kids, doing great things.” Recently, Saunders paired up with LIFE student Gabriel Morin to play in the Dalton and Linda Floyd Family Mentoring Golf Tournament. “This program gives them academic strength, but more than that, it provides a sense of social and civic responsibility.”

Over the last four years, LIFE students took courses that encourage communication and healthy living as well as recreation and leisure. In conjunction with course work, they were able to serve as interns for two semesters, learn the jobs and move into a paid position after. This allows them to have hands on training while earning credit towards their LIFE program certificates. “We ask them if there is anywhere they want to work,” Saunders says. “Then we go begging. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Morin did an internship at CCU’s Department of Information Technical Services and currently works on campus at check-in desk at Kimbel Library. O'Connor did intern work in with the pro shop at the Hackler Golf Course and with Chanticleer football in equipment management. “I liked it,” O’Connor says. “I was helping the football team.”

Talarico has been employed at Goodwill Industries International in Myrtle Beach for three years. She also did an internship with the Theatre of the Republic. Recently, she played the lead in Atlantic Stage’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and will be working seasonally with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans Baseball team at Saunders says, “We’re doing all kinds of things.”

During their four-year stint at CCU, the students participated in fundraising and took part in charitable events. This semester, they contributed their time and energy to fundraising efforts for Relay for Life and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. “They have really developed bonds in the community,” Saunders says.

If the LIFE students are local, they have the choice of living at home or in one of CCU’s residence halls. “Living away from home gives them a chance to see and experience college life. And helps them build relationships,” Saunders says.

Morin and O’Connor both live in University Place during the week and go home on the weekends. “I was always able to communicate pretty well,” Morin says. “But I’ve been able to work on my communication skills even more.”
Morin enjoyed the informal classes and says he spent his time “concentrating on his art,” he says. “I am sculptor and painter.”

Talarico takes pride in her hard work ethic and seems to seek expressive movement and the stage. “I love Zumba and dance,” she says. “I liked yoga too, but it was a little bit painful.”

Their graduation is dependent on a culmination of assessments: class and vocational evaluations, and their advancement toward their career goals. “The students will receive a certificate of completion along with an official transcript showing the courses they have completed and a portfolio of experiences they have had,” Wiggins says.

So what does the future hold for these CCU LIFE graduates? “I’m going to try and get a job at the Horry County Library in Socastee,” Morin says. “And find time to work on my fan fiction novel.”

O’Connor plans on moving back to Murrells Inlet full time. “I love it down there,” he says. “And I would like to work in a movie theater after graduation.”

“Right now, I’m going to find summer work, maybe a job for a couple of years,” Talarico says. But she has pretty big plans for her future as well. “After that, I want to move to New York City and be a Broadway actress.”


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