From Guelph Mercury Tribune – original article here.

Community Living clients get a taste of life at U of Guelph

COMMUNITY May 09, 2018 by Jessica Lovell
Campus Friends

Jerrett Bennink, left, and University of Guelph student Zach Dewachter met through Community Living Guelph Wellington’s Campus Friends program, a unique program that partners Community Living clients with U of G volunteer mentors to offer participants and university experience they might not otherwise have. – Jessica Lovell/Metroland

More Campus Friends

Tiffany Borges, program co-ordinator for Community Living Guelph Wellington’s Campus Friends, poses for a photo with program participant Taylor Redmond. Redmond is one of the first graduates of the three-year program, which offers individuals with developmental disabilities the chance to experience university life. – Jessica Lovell/Metroland


For many people with intellectual disabilities, the experience of university life may seem like something that is out of reach. But thanks to a unique program offered through Community Living Guelph Wellington and the University of Guelph, that is no longer the case.

It’s called Campus Friends, and it provides an opportunity for individuals with developmental disabilities to do things like attend classes and university athletics events, volunteer on campus and hang out at the university with friends — just as regular students do.

“It gives them an opportunity to apply to university,” said program co-ordinator Tiffany Borges, highlighting a key element of the program — an opportunity its participants would not otherwise have.

Campus Friends, which was started as a pilot program three years ago, is not strictly speaking an academic program, but is more of an experiential program.

It partners participants with university student volunteers, who offer friendship and act as mentors as the individuals take part in campus activities. Those activities range from athletics to volunteer work, auditing classes, or even just going for coffee.

“We discuss what your interests, wants and needs are and we create a schedule based on those needs,” Borges said.

Community Living participants spend the better part of the day, once a week, on campus, and U of G students typically commit one-and-a-half hours a week to the volunteer role, taking turns guiding participants through their customized schedules.

“Every hour-and-a-half, they get a new volunteer from the U of G,” Borges explained.

The pilot program has been a success, with its first participants donning gowns to graduate the program this month.

“I’ve got mixed emotions,” said Jerrett Bennink, one of those first graduates, sharing how he feels to be leaving the Campus Friends behind.

Bennink has fond memories of attending lectures and getting to sit in the middle of Rozanski Hall’s auditorium. It’s an experience most students take for granted, but to Bennink, the lecture hall itself was impressive.

He attended biology classes, and at least one economics class and describes the experience as “fantastic.”

There was also computer time in the library, and — a favourite — coffee dates.

“He really likes the social aspects of the program,” Borges said.

“He’s a celebrity — knows everyone him on campus,” said Zach Dewachter, one of the program’s student volunteers.

Dewachter, a fourth-year geoscience student, has been involved in the program for the past year and a half, having been encouraged to volunteer by some friends who were already taking part.

“I had some friends that were involved, and they said how good these guys were to work with,” Dewachter said.

He had been looking for volunteer opportunities, and the Campus Friends program intrigued him.

“I wanted something that didn’t feel like school, and this seemed like the best option,” Dewachter said, noting he has made some lifelong friends through the experience.

“You leave the volunteering just knowing that you didn’t do school; you just spent an hour-and-a-half hanging out with friends. They put a smile on your face the entire time,” he said.

“I’ll miss you,” Bennink said to Dewachter.

Bennink knows he’s welcome to come back to visit the campus, but he also has a busy life off campus that he’s looking forward to.

His two part-time jobs — working at Shoppers Drug Mart on Eramosa, and volunteering at the Salvation Army thrift shop — will keep him busy. He’s also looking forward to earning a computer certificate at Action Read.

His friend, Taylor Redmond, who also just graduated from Campus Friends, hopes to continue to spend time on campus.

Redmond was already familiar with U of G, having worked at the fitness centre and the intramural office, and through the weekly sports radio show he hosts on the campus radio station, so the Campus Friends program felt like a good fit.

It was a chance to do some continuing education after high school and continue to hang out with his peers.

But the best part of the program for the Special Olympics athlete?

“I did like going to the gym to play sports,” Redmond said. “Basketball was the top, I think.”

He also enjoyed volunteering at the Gryphon Field House and at the campus bookstore, and attending classes, as well as concerts at the University Centre.

He enjoyed helping his peers get comfortable with the program and connecting with the volunteers and wants to continue his work on campus, including continuing in the new volunteer roles he has taken on through Campus Friends.

Redmond recommends the program to others.

“The university is a great university, and you get to explore the campus,” he said. “My home is the university, for sure — my second home.”

There is a cost of $1,500 per year to take part in the three-year program. Applications are due June 1, and an interview process follows, taking place in the last week of June.

To learn more about Campus Friends, contact Borges at Community Living at

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