MOUNT VERNON — When Jessica Lonergan was born 20 years ago with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and scoliosis, her mother Joy Caldwell was told she would never walk or talk.

Now, Caldwell’s “miracle girl” is not only walking, talking and performing in school plays, she’ll also be graduating from Skagit Valley College.

“It was really important to her that she was able to attend a college like her sisters,” Caldwell said.

Lonergan is a student in the college’s Individualized, Next Step, Vocational Education and Social Skills Training (INVEST) program, which allows developmentally delayed students the opportunity to go to college and learn skills that will help them lead more independent lives.

“The main criteria is: I want to go to college,” said INVEST lead faculty member Lisa Forsythe. “There’s no entrance exam, there’s no barriers to keep them out.”

The program, which is in its third year at the college, is for students between the ages of 18 and 21 who have aged out of their high school’s special education programs but still need transitional support.

“It does make a difference in their maturity and their confidence,” Forsythe said.

So far, the program has served 42 students from six school districts, including the 19 currently enrolled, Forsythe said.

Next year, the Stanwood-Camano School District will also participate, she said. She expects to have 25 students.

Students enrolled in the program can earn either a one-year, 36-credit certificate or a two-year, 72-credit certificate, Forsythe said.

The core classes focus on lessons such as personal finance, cooking, and career preparation and interview skills.

“Now it’s going to be able to go on her résumé that she attended college,” Caldwell said. “She loves working; she loves being able to earn extra money.”

Students such as Lonergan, who is in the two-year program, have the opportunity to take more on-campus electives of their choosing, including environmental science, Japanese and P.E.

For Lonergan, the highlights of her time in college have been participating in the Campus Christian Fellowship club and drama class — where her face lights up the second she sees the stage.

“It’s a win-win for Jessica, but it’s also a win for her fellow students,” Caldwell said. “It’s part of learning how to accept people for their differences.”

For Lonergan, an added bonus is that she gets to attend school with Caldwell, who is preparing to enter the school’s nursing program next year.

“She’s very proud that we come to school together,” Caldwell said. “Jessica is part of my inspiration for wanting to be a nurse.”

Next year, one of Lonergan’s younger sisters will be attending the college as well, Caldwell said.

Since her daughter has been enrolled in the program, Caldwell said she has noticed Lonergan is able to focus more, listen better and is more independent.

“She’s learning a lot more than we can test out of her,” Caldwell said.

Skagit Valley College’s program is one of three such programs in the state — the others being at Highline Community College and Spokane Falls Community College — and one of 266 nationwide, Forsythe said.

“Our goal is to get this program in all the other colleges,” she said.

Because the transitional services are supported through the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the tuition for most students is covered by their high schools.

If a student wishes to continue in the program after they are 21, they can receive financial help from the state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation or Developmental Disabilities.

The college is working to make the program eligible for financial aid, Forsythe said.

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141,, Twitter: @Kera_SVH,

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