Hand in Hand: Preparing for a life well lived

Will McMillian, a graduate of the Hand-in-Hand program at Pope John Paul II High School, has a job at the Green Hill Y in Nashville, TN on Wednesday, 23 January 2019.

Will McMillian, a graduate of the Hand-in-Hand program at Pope John Paul II High School, has a job at the Green Hill Y in Nashville, TN. Photo by Rick Musacchio.

In 2004, John Paul II High School embarked on an experiment: could students with intellectual disabilities attend school with typically-developing peers in a rigorous, Catholic scholastic environment, and not only co-exist on the same campus, but become fully immersed and accepted members of the school community?

The answer must have been a resounding “yes”, because the program is still going strong and boasts a full roster of graduates, and a second Hand in Hand initiative is under way at St. Ann School.

It all began when Mollie Gavigan, the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, approached Hans Broekman, JPII’s principal at the time. She wanted her daughter to have the same opportunities that her other children had had: to learn and mature in a Catholic educational environment.

The inclusion of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in general education classrooms had been a fixture in public schools since the passing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1993. The IDEA ensured a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive setting to children with disabilities, along with the necessary special education services and supports.

However, IDEA held no jurisdiction over private or religious schools, and very few schools in those categories were willing to make the necessary accommodations to include students with such perceived intellectual, physical or behavioral limitations, because they didn’t have to. Neither did JPII, but driven by a mom’s passion for her daughter and other children like her, the principal, faculty and student body climbed on board to see where this experiment would lead.

We know this much: three former Hand in Hand students – Jeanne Gavigan, Will McMillan and Rachel Pearson – completed JPII, then attended and graduated from Vanderbilt’s Next Step post-secondary program for students with intellectual disabilities, and are now employed and fully-participating members of their communities. With a recipe of previously unoffered opportunities, high expectations, broad peer, adult and family support, faith and belief – all essential ingredients of the ground-breaking, and for these three, life-changing Hand in Hand model – they have become adults living full lives, with confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth.


Jeanne’s dad, Bill Gavigan, believes that Adrienne Parks, the first Hand in Hand teacher and program coordinator, was nothing less than a “Godsend”. “I always tell people that on the first day in Hand in Hand, Adrienne Parks demanded Jeanne put a period at the end of a sentence,” he recalled. “No one in eight years in the Metro school system had ever done that. There were no expectations; no levels that anyone thought our kids could aspire to.”

Beyond correct punctuation, Jeanne and her Hand in Hand cohorts were given assignments they had to complete, at school and at home. They were also expected to develop the social skills and emotional maturity to interact positively with their typically-developing peers. At the same time, those other kids – some assigned as Peer Buddies for the Hand in Hand students, but most just students in the general school population – were learning everyday lessons about diversity and acceptance.

Parks, a Peabody College trained educator, was especially skilled at meeting her students “where they were” and by using individualized instruction to enhance their reading and writing skills. Throughout their four years at JPII, the Hand in Hand students shared a classroom with Parks, as well as participated in inclusion classes – classes of students with and without disabilities – with other faculty in a variety of scholastic and faith subject areas. Parks endeavored to identify and augment the spark in each of her students, and assumed they were destined for great things, and further learning, beyond their time at JPII.

“Being held to very high expectations at Pope John Paul II helped Will be prepared for Next Steps at Vanderbilt,” said Elise McMillan, Will’s mom. “Because of his individualized learning plan at Pope John Paul II, Will was also able to develop his skills that would be needed at Vanderbilt. We’ve always had high expectations for all three of our children who are now young adults. Hand in Hand didn’t change those expectations, but every year we were able to see Will develop new skills and talents.”

The surprising thing about having high expectations for students with disabilities is that the students frequently attain them. “We saw Rachel rise to meet the challenges put before her by the Hand in Hand program,” said Eddie Pearson, Rachel’s dad. “She was challenged to grow academically, socially and spiritually. She had to balance school work and social events unlike she ever had before. In many ways though, the changes we saw in her were the same as we saw in our other daughters who transitioned into high school from middle school.”

An integral part

From the jump, the goal was to have the Hand in Hand students become an integral part of the JPII campus. They were encouraged to “participate in the life of the school to the fullest extent possible”, according to Parks. That meant being present for events and activities like advisor groups, assemblies, plays and musicals, dances – including the Prom – and athletics. “The theater director at JPII had come from the Steeple Players in Hendersonville,” said Bill. “He knew Jeanne’s love of theater, and he had her in every play, every year. That was huge.”

“Pope John Paul II was such a welcoming place for Will and his classmates,” said Elise. “The school leadership, starting with Hans Broekman, treated Will and his fellow students just as they would any other student at Pope John Paul II.”

That meaningful and enthusiastic integration had a profound impact on the Hand in Hand students. After JPII, throughout their successful years at Next Steps, and into their adult, working lives, Will, Rachel and Jeanne felt a sense of belonging. They believed that they had the same rights as anyone else to a self-determined and purposeful life.

“Jeanne had never had a positive experience before Hand in Hand,” said Bill. “She was constantly picked on. It was such a dramatic change for her self-esteem.”

Entering the workforce

Besides their scholastic studies and learning how to get along with others in the high school hallways and after school programs, the Hand in Hand students benefited from job skills training and career exploration. “I helped in the cafeteria and we also worked on some of the recycling efforts,” Will said. “We also visited several places in the community and did volunteer work. That helped me think about what I wanted to be.”

Will also worked for the newspaper at JPII and Vanderbilt, and is convinced that the skills he learned there helped him get and maintain jobs at the West Meade Pool, Barnes and Noble, the Green Hills YMCA and Nashville DA’s office.

Hand in Hand and Vanderbilt’s post-secondary programs were the stepping stones Jeanne needed to land her first job at the ticket office for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC), which allowed her to continue to be involved in her beloved theater environment. After five years at TPAC, Jeanne returned to her alma mater, JPII, and has been employed there ever since.

For Rachel, the most valuable job preparation she received was getting support working and communicating with other people. “This has helped me in my job working with teachers and children at a day care center,” she said. “I’ve been working full time with benefits for six years and I am able to make my own money. I can buy things for myself and my family. I recently bought my first new car. That was really exciting.”

Her father is pretty excited too. “Rachel has surprised us as she has encountered each challenge in your life,” said her dad. “Watching how her self-confidence grew gave us greater belief that she could get a job and be a great employee for some employer one day. We saw her work hard, learn to speak publicly, be a contributing member of a team, care about doing quality work, and meet deadlines.”

What might have been

Elise doesn’t like to consider what Will’s life might have been without his Hand in Hand and Next Steps at Vanderbilt experiences. She’s incredibly grateful for her good friends Mollie and Bill Gavigan for having the original vision, and for collaborating with JPII leadership to establish the program. “We’ve heard from so many students and families what a great impact the program had on all students at JPII,” she said. “We need more programs like Hand in Hand and Next Steps in so many more schools and colleges in the greater Nashville area and across our country. We want every student to have the opportunities that our children have had. That’s one reason we’re so excited to see Hand in Hand growing at St. Ann’s School.”

“If Rachel hadn’t been able to be part of Hand in Hand or Next Steps, we believe she would have missed out on the growth that comes from being challenged and living up to that challenge,” said Eddie. “We believe her communication and social skills were greatly improved through these programs. As for Hand in Hand, she would have missed out on the spiritual growth that is central to a Catholic school education, which may have been the greatest benefit she was able to realize.”

Bill doesn’t think Jeanne would have developed, to the great degree she has, in a public school setting, and she probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to follow up her high school education with navigating the extensive Vanderbilt campus and its social offerings. “These are intangibles: the satisfaction of learning new tasks; of having expectations put in front of you – both high school and college did that,” he said. “And both fulfilling those expectations, and then being rewarded for it, even if the accomplishments were small.

“I’ve watched others in similar circumstances who didn’t have those opportunities, and who haven’t progressed as far,” Bill continued. “Without Hand in Hand, I don’t think she would have blossomed as she has.”

This article first appeared in the Tennessee Register.

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