Editor’s Note: Katie Basden is the mother of one of the EAGLES program’s inaugural students, Bradley Basden. In this first-person narrative, Katie shares not only her family’s long history with Auburn, but also how the College of Education’s new program for students with intellectual disabilities brought her family’s story full circle.
Our Auburn story started long ago when my grandfather, Joseph Embree Jenkins, enrolled in Auburn University. My parents attended Auburn University in the 1960s, both receiving their undergraduate and Master’s degrees. They had three children, me, Clyde III, and Joanna. We all attended Auburn.
Our family has loved and supported Auburn sports and attended football and basketball games since I was a young child. My biggest dream was to be an Auburn University cheerleader. Fast forward to the spring of 1988 when I had the opportunity to finally try out for the squad. Back then, we were responsible for finding our own partners to try out with. So, with the help of a current cheerleader, I was introduced to Brett Basden on the floor of Memorial Coliseum where he agreed to try out with me. The rest is history. We both made the squad, cheering together for one year before he graduated and headed to Optometry School, and me cheering for two additional years, the final year as the Head Cheerleader.
Knowing our Auburn background, it’s not surprising that all three of our children, Brittany Anne, Kallie, and Bradley, wanted and expected to attend Auburn University. We found out when our oldest and youngest children were 9 months old that they were born with a rare genetic defect. When I say rare, I mean they are just two of the three known cases in the world. The genetic alteration affects their brain, liver, and spleen. Growing up, these two encountered many physical and cognitive challenges.
I have been fortunate to be able to spend my entire life helping and advocating for my own children with special needs. They cannot always speak for themselves, but they want the same things we all do: relationships, purpose, love, and acceptance. I learned early on that the path for these children rarely runs as smoothly as it does for typical children. As parents, you spend your life helping forge the best path you can to ensure these kids have every opportunity for a full life. In our case, this required years of prayer, encouragement from teachers and other parents of special needs children, and unlimited time and energy on our part.
Our oldest Brittany Anne started at community college and later realized her dream of attending Auburn University in the fall of 2017. Her time at Auburn has been successful thanks to hard work and dedication along with the resources provided by the Office of Accessibility.
Our middle child Kallie enrolled at Auburn right after high school and recently graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education. She will begin working toward her Master’s degree at Auburn this summer while serving as a graduate teaching assistant.
As our youngest child Bradley entered high school, we knew that because of his significant cognitive challenges, he would not be able to attend college. We knew there were programs available for students with intellectual disabilities around the country, but honestly, our son would never want to go anywhere but Auburn. Also, we could not imagine sending him far away from Auburn and far away from us. One day several years ago, Bradley and I were driving through campus and he looked at the stadium and pointed to himself and said, “Auburn?” Not knowing what to say to him (and as any good parent who doesn’t have an answer for their child would do), I smiled and continued to drive and changed the subject.
We truly did not know what Bradley would do after graduation. I had been praying throughout his high school years for there to be some type of opportunity for him after high school. I had even prayed for my own personal role in the matter and debated whether I should begin research and approach Auburn University with the idea of working toward building some type of post-secondary program.
Our world was shocked in the fall of 2017 when my daughter and I were driving to the beach. She was scrolling social media and said, “Mom, have you heard about this new program Auburn is starting called EAGLES?” She began to read the press release and I almost had to pull over to avoid having a wreck. Auburn University was planning to have a post-secondary program for students with intellectual disabilities beginning fall 2018…the fall after Bradley would graduate from Auburn High School!
Bradley applied for the program, was invited to interview, and on May 7, 2018, we received the news that he had been accepted into the inaugural cohort of the Auburn University EAGLES program. Our lives would soon be changed in ways that we could not have imagined.
What’s important to know is that we did not have a “Plan B” for Bradley. Had he not been accepted into this program, he most likely would have had a part-time job working several hours per week, and spent the rest of his time sitting on the couch alone at home watching TV or playing video games. His social life would have consisted of whatever activities our family participated in: church, sports, and time at the lake. We would have struggled to provide social interactions for him with peers his age. At this time in his life, we had not been able to provide Bradley with many opportunities to experience independence beyond navigating the campus of Auburn High School. And to be honest, he most likely had not even crossed the street by himself.
Bradley is one of the most likeable boys you will ever meet, but due to his Apraxia of speech (difficulty connecting speech messages from the brain to the mouth), he has struggled to carry out back-and-forth conversations with people. This significantly hinders his ability to make friends and form relationships.
We were entrusting our most precious assets to Auburn University and a new program with the hope of changing their lives forever. At this point, we had no idea how our lives would also be forever changed.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone who encounters Bradley loves him, but he doesn’t have peers that he socializes with. We have always tried to find activities for him to participate in to have social interactions (Miracle League, Therapeutic Camp, Best Buddies), but all of these activities are limited in scope and time.
When August 2018 arrived, Bradley moved into the dorm to live with two other EAGLES and a WING (a typical student who works as a support for the EAGLES students). It was a scary and emotional time for Bradley and for all of the EAGLES parents. We were entrusting our most precious assets to Auburn University and a new program with the hope of changing their lives forever. At this point, we had no idea how our lives would also be forever changed.
Bradley has learned to live independently in the dorm this year. He attended classes at Auburn and walked to class by himself. He has learned to use a “text-to-speech” app that helps him speak when he is struggling. He even gave speeches this past semester in his Honor Speech Class using this app. He goes to eat at different dining halls by himself. He had a job working at Village Dining this semester. And he has made numerous new friends with the EAGLES and WINGS through the program. These are all opportunities that, as parents, we could have never provided for our children.
When Bradley turned 20 in February, we were able to throw him a surprise birthday party and thanks to all of his new Auburn friends, there were 20 people there to surprise him. Words can’t express the joy we felt as parents seeing him surrounded by all of his new friends and peers from Auburn University.
My husband and I never thought our son would move out of our house. Thanks to the EAGLES program, we have realized that he has abilities and potential that we could have never imagined. We now believe that with the right supports, he can live and work independently one day.
Most people do not realize the costly supports that must be in place to execute a program of this type. EAGLES students are required to pay a program fee of $15,000 per semester in addition to the cost of regular tuition, dining, and housing. This is a major investment for families who had, most likely, not been saving for college tuition for their children with special needs. Most families in these cases are saving for their children’s longterm health care and living expenses. The day Bradley was accepted as an EAGLES student, I made a promise to the founders of the program that I would do everything in my power to help raise awareness and funding for the EAGLES program. I wanted this program to be available and affordable to all students and families who could benefit from it, regardless of their financial situation.
I still remember calling my brother, Clyde Prather III, the day Bradley was accepted into the program. He was overjoyed at the possibility for Bradley, while at the same time, shocked at the financial commitment. One of the first things he said to me was, “I need to see if our You Might Be For Auburn Foundation would be interested in donating to the EAGLES program through the College of Education. This is a perfect fit for our group!”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Through the matching donation of $25,000 from the YMBFA Foundation, combined with the generosity of Auburn alumni and friends across the country, the EAGLES program raised more than $70,000 this spring. Not only did this campaign raise funds for the program, but it began to raise awareness of the program so other families of special needs children across the country will explore and see if their student might one day be an EAGLE.
We are so grateful to the members of the Auburn Family who shared our story through the campaign, along with the many follows, tweets, and retweets we received from Auburn University, Coach Bruce Pearl, and so many of the Auburn faithful. But we can’t stop here! We want every member of the Auburn Family to learn about and support this program. My dream is for the Auburn Family to donate and provide funding for this program to be fully endowed and remove any additional financial constraints on the families who are blessed to participate as EAGLES. Knowing the love and generosity of the Auburn people, combined with the excitement of completing the Auburn Family with this population of students with intellectual disabilities, I believe my dream will one day come true!
Everyone was created by God with a purpose. Everyone wants to make a difference in life. Some students need a little extra help in finding their purpose and what their next step in life will be.
I have recently joined forces with Denise Slupe and Sarah Newton to start The EAGLES Foundation, a non-profit foundation with the goal of raising awareness and funding to support the EAGLES program at Auburn University.
We have even greater hopes for Bradley as he begins his second year of the program in August. We know that he has even more opportunities to increase his independent living skills, social skills, and work skills as he receives the invaluable education and training from the EAGLES staff and the faculty and students at Auburn.
I cannot begin to express my appreciation to Provost Bill Hardgrave, Dean Betty Lou Whitford, Trustee Sarah Newton, Denise Slupe, Dr. Jamie Carney, Dr. Karen Rabren, Dr. Cari Dunn, and Dr. Betty Patten for making this program possible. The financial commitment, time, and risks that Auburn University was willing to take to launch this program has changed our family forever and will continue to change the lives of special needs families for generations. I have no doubt that the EAGLES program at Auburn University will one day be the premier program in the country for students like Bradley to have a genuine, meaningful college experience.
Everyone was created by God with a purpose. Everyone wants to make a difference in life. Some students need a little extra help in finding their purpose and what their next step in life will be. This is what the EAGLES program does. I’ve focused on the impact of Auburn University on the EAGLES and their families, but what’s amazing is the impact the EAGLES are having on Auburn University. The lives of typical Auburn students and faculty are being enriched by their interactions with the EAGLES as much as the EAGLES students are being impacted by them. I’ve heard more than once this year, “This is the best thing that Auburn University has ever done!” I wholeheartedly agree. With the advent of the EAGLES program, The Auburn Family is now complete.
And the Basden family is eternally grateful, thanks to Auburn, that our Auburn family is now also complete!
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