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The PIE Experience

By Meredith Stoops and Anna Restuccia

Every semester, about 60 Benedictine College students enroll in Psychology of Individuals with Exceptionalities or PIE for short. According to the College’s course catalog, PIE serves as an “introduction to special education.” But, as Dr. Matthew Ramsey, Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Benedictine, points out, the class is, more fundamentally, an introduction to disability, since one half to two-thirds of his students don’t have any previous significant experiences with disability.

Convinced that “we can’t come to know about someone with disabilities if we don’t know someone with disabilities,” Ramsey encourages his students to do just that through PIE’s “experience points,” which account for 20% of the grade in the course. “Not all of them are about having direct experience with someone with a disability,” Ramsey states, “but I… give more points the closer to actual human contact they get.” So, while students can some earn points by preparing a book review, scheduling a professional job shadow, visiting a classroom, etc., the highest scoring experiences are service-learning opportunities such as helping at Special Olympics competitions, respite care events, or camps for individuals with disabilities. “For your first time it’s really scary,” shared freshman Sara Pavlyak, “because someone else's safety and dignity is in your hands." Pavlyak and four classmates served for a weekend at Camp Barnabas, a Christian Special Needs camp where individuals with disabilities are both campers and volunteers. “We had to help the volunteers help their campers,” she said. The weekend at Camp Barnabas made an impression on Pavlyak on a personal and academic level: "When Dr. Ramsey is talking about what we will experience… I'm like, ‘Yeah, I know what he's talking about,’ which is really a blessing.”

Most of the service-learning experience points in the course take place off campus, which can make participation more difficult for those who don’t have cars. This spring, however, students in PIE will have a unique on-campus opportunity to engage area youth and adults of all ability levels. In collaboration with Special Olympics Kansas, Achievement Services for Northeast Kansas, and Special Needs Ministry of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas (Special Needs Ministry), Benedictine College will host “Field Day,” on April 18, 2020. According to the event’s website, Field Day is a “fun morning of physical activity for people of all ability levels, ages 3 and up.” Though the event is only from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM, the organizing team, which includes Ramsey, hopes Field Day will be but one step towards a more sustained outreach to persons with disabilities in the area. “Our purpose is really to reach out to families within the Atchison area to determine what kind of service they need” says Tom Racunas, Lead Consultant for Special Needs Ministry. Field Day, as well as any new events or programs it might lead to in the future, will rely heavily on Benedictine volunteers and service-learners, such as the students in Ramsey’s PIE class. According to Pavlyak, the next set of Ravens in the course should strongly consider helping with opportunities like this: “For experience points, we can watch a movie, or read books,” she says, “but… actually doing things for and with people with special needs is a lot better; you can read a lot of books and still not know anything about people.”

For more information on Field Day, click here.