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Ward Foundation benefits DRC students

Danika Dodd and Jessica Hawk might seem to have very little in common.

Dodd is a senior finance major from Sarasota who recently returned from a study abroad trip to Germany. Hawk, a Jacksonville resident, is a graduate student seeking a master’s degree in exceptional education who hopes to soon begin her career as an advocate for individuals with disabilities.

As different as they might appear on the surface, they have at least one thing in common. They are both recipients of scholarships from the Michael and Kim Ward Foundation through the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Dodd and Hawk have disabilities and have been helped throughout their time at UNF by the DRC.

For Dodd, the Ward Scholarship made her trip to Germany possible this year. Because of the transformational experience she enjoyed while abroad, she said her career path has taken an entirely different direction.

For Hawk, the fellowship has allowed her to pursue a graduate degree without incurring huge loans that would have significantly added to her stress after her expected graduation in December.

Dodd and Hawk are among dozens who have benefitted from the Ward Foundation, both at the DRC and at the UNF Military and Veterans Resource Center. In the last several years, the Foundation has donated about $800,000 to the two centers for scholarships and fellowships, as well as program and faculty support.

The Ward Foundation’s most recent donation of $330,000 over three years will allow the DRC to establish a program called ACCESS, or A Comprehensive Collaboration to Ensure Student Success. There are four major components of the program: a faculty fellow position, fellowships, scholarships and training materials.

Dr. Kristine Webb, the DRC director and a nationally recognized authority in the field of exceptional education, said the Ward Foundation is having a transformational impact on students and faculty alike.

“Without the Ward Foundation funding for scholarships and fellowships, I believe many of our students would simply not be able to get a college education,” she said.

The DRC has about 850 registered students in both undergraduate and graduate programs. The Ward Foundation is the single biggest donor to the program.

But the assistance goes far beyond fellowships and scholarships, Webb said.

“To have role models in the community who not only exhibit compassion and empathy for our students but believe in their abilities sends a strong message of social responsibility,” she said. “The Wards demonstrate a deep understanding about students with disabilities. They realize the disability is only a small part of who they are as individuals, and the Wards clearly believe in their human potential.”

The newest donation has allowed the College of Education to secure a faculty fellow position to lead the ACCESS Program. Dr. Janice Seabrooks-Blackmore has returned to UNF from a faculty position at the University of North Texas-Dallas to take on the role. Previously a UNF faculty member for 10 years, Seabrooks-Blackmore is a noted expert in strategic teaching, which is at the heart of the ACCESS program.

In essence, the ACCESS program is designed to identify how students with disabilities learn. Seabrooks-Blackmore said these students benefit from a personalized plan to help master strategic methods of learning.

Seabrooks-Blackmore will not only teach students with disabilities but also those studying special education. With a cap of about 30 students per semester and two graduate students to assist, Webb believes the program will have a gradual ripple effect at the University since students will become mentors for other students.

“Teaching strategically is similar to the concept of teaching someone to fish,” she said. “Rather than tutoring a student, which is basically giving them a fish for a day, we want to give our students a learning technique to be used for a lifetime.”

The relationship with the Ward Foundation began when Webb started working with CSX in the area of disabilities awareness.

“CSX is a very disability friendly company,” she said. “They have created an inclusive workplace with employees having a wide range of disabilities. CSX is a true community leader in creating an inclusive workplace.”

An example of that leadership is a program in which DRC students job shadow at CSX to “try on different job hats to see what fits and what doesn’t,” she said.

Because of the company’s involvement, Michael Ward, chairman and CEO of CSX Corp., and his wife, Kim, have taken a strong interest in the DRC and the Military Veterans Center.

Kim Ward explained the gifts to the DRC are designed to help students create a path for their lives in order to reach their greatest potential.

“We believe the DRC does just this by helping young people achieve their highest potential,” she said. “UNF has set high goals and standards in supporting all students regardless of their needs and we are honored to be able to help UNF meet them.”

Because of her many years of teaching, Webb normally has no trouble expressing herself. However, when it comes to the Ward Foundation she sometimes has difficulty finding adequate words of gratitude.

“The impact of the Ward Foundation has been incredible at UNF,” she said. “I can’t even begin to quantify it. We simply would not be a Florida leader in disability resources without their assistance.”