West Chester raises money to save program for students with intellectual disabilities

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- It's freshman year of college for West Chester native Olivia Riehl. At one time, this type of independence seemed impossible for the 20-year-old.

"I've known campus since I was a little girl and now I'm here officially as a Ram, so it's really cool to be on campus as a student," Riehl said.

She has Down syndrome, but with the help of her family, she's always fought hard for opportunities.

"It's always been a dream that we could stay in our own community," explained JoEllen Riehl, Olivia's mom. "We wanted to keep her in her community school; we didn't want to send her to another program."

Two years ago, West Chester University began a "Real Achievement Matters," or RAM Initiative, meant to give students with intellectual disabilities a chance to go to college and "have the chance to study what they want to study in college and find their path," Riehl said.

The initiative is a pilot, meaning that time is running out on it and so are the finances. The community, however, is trying to make the program permanent. The effort started with Riehl and other students in the program writing letters to the university saying what it means to them to go there and asking to keep campus inclusive.

"It was an amazing moment to read through all the things they had hoped and dreamed for to come to realization as part of this experience," said Jeffery Osgood, deputy provost of the university.

Once administration took notice, others did too.

"We experienced overwhelming support in terms of personal philanthropy and donations," Osgood said.

Ira Lubert, with the Lubert Family Foundation, offered a grant of $50,000 a year for the next five years. The university says it needs $100,000 per year to keep the program going, so now it's raising money to match the Lubert's donation. While it's an expensive goal, students like Riehl say the opportunity is priceless for both them and the community.

"Hopefully those students, when they meet another child with an intellectual disability, they'll then react appropriately," said Riehl's mom.

Information on how to contribute can be found on the West Chester University Foundation's website.
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