Starkloff Disability Institute’s DREAM BIG and Access U programs prove to be a winning team

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As a DREAM BIG participant in 2018, Ben Crowner looked up to the program staff and counselors who shared their insights, strengths and experiences with him.

Now Ben is back as a counselor himself, delivering that same message of encouragement and hope to the 2020 DREAM BIG campers.

While certain aspects of the DREAM BIG curriculum were already somewhat familiar to Ben, the chance to interact with disabled role models made a significant impact on him as a camper.

“My parents always encouraged independence and were open to ideas like disability pride, so not everything about camp was completely brand-new to me,” Ben recalls, “but it was nice to talk to other people with disabilities who were already going through the process of navigating college and finding a career. It helped me and the other campers feel like we weren’t alone.”

As a student with cerebral palsy currently attending Southwestern Illinois College, Ben has become adept at requesting necessary accommodations and taking full advantage of the resources at his disposal, skills he hopes to impart to DREAM BIG participants.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve grown to understand what college is like and what challenges I’m likely to face in the future,” Ben explains. “The real world is definitely different, and I’m happy to share that experience with the campers.”

SDI’s Access U program also eased the transition from high school to college for Ben and helped him acquire some of the tools for a successful college experience.

Katie Fields, our College Outreach Coordinator, says Ben is a shining example of the positive results that come from fostering long-term relationships with students. “I think he’s a good representation of what our pipeline can be,” she points out. “From high school to college to career, we’re here to support students throughout that entire process.”

Working as a camp counselor offers a dual benefit for Ben. For one thing, it’s a chance to give back to the program that helped him so much as a recent high school graduate. What’s more, it serves as a kind of on-the-job training for his own career aspirations.

“Since I’m working toward my degree and my ultimate goal of becoming a social worker, Katie thought this would be a nice opportunity for me to build my resume and get some experience,” Ben recalls. “She was right. I’m so glad I’ve gotten this opportunity.”

The first week of DREAM BIG Career Camp, which took place June 1-5, featured a variety of interactive presentations from area employers, as well as informational sessions and group discussions led by SDI staff. As one of three counselors, Ben’s primary responsibility was to help facilitate conversation and keep campers engaged with the material.

During an afternoon lesson on self-advocacy, Ben chipped in with some keen observations for DREAM BIG participants: “I think there are steps to successful self-advocacy. I think you’ve got to know what you want to say, be polite and give people logical reasons for why you want something,” he told the class. “Also know that everyone needs help, regardless of disability or non-disability. Everyone struggles with asking for help, but I think the more you do it the better off you’ll be and l you’ll become more natural at it.”

Ben plans to return as a counselor next month for week two of DREAM BIG Career Camp. He recognizes the importance of strong disabled role models in his own life, and he finds immense satisfaction in being able to help guide students through the next phase of their development.

“Coming from successful people with disabilities who are out there doing it, I feel like these messages are really powerful,” Ben reflects. “I remember my counselors giving me the same advice I’m giving campers now. It all works if you have a plan, keep trying your best and never give up.”

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