Students in the BUILD program offer insight into their romantic relationships and how they might change after graduation.
By Jamie Hudalla
Sam Kohs can’t wait until summer. He shuffles into the workroom at Medtronic and sits down beside a pretty brunette. Her name is Kerri, and he likes her smile. They want to date, but the program doesn’t allow interns to mingle. He’s there for Project Search, an organization that allows students with disabilities to get work experience.
Almost a year passed before Kohs, a second-year student in the Bethel University Inclusive Learning Development program, could ask Kerri out. They officially started dating June 15, 2014. Their third anniversary is coming up, and he plans to take her out to dinner. It doesn’t matter where — anywhere is fine as long as they’re together. They often spend their time at her house, where it’s more private. Because Kohs reached level four of the BUILD program, he can leave campus whenever he wants.
The BUILD program — the first of its kind in Minnesota — allows students ages 18 to 25 with intellectual disabilities to have the full college experience. Students live in dorms, attend 8 a.m. classes and make lasting friendships.
“We’re an inclusive program, meaning that BUILD students are a part of the general population, which is more realistic,” said Dawn Allen, director of the BUILD program. “It’s a good opportunity for them to meet more people and start relationships.”
According to Allen, people often don’t realize that BUILD students have the same experiences as everyone else — particularly experiences like dating and heartbreak. Others don’t take romantic relationships between BUILD students seriously.
“We don’t want people to have an immature view of our students,” she said. “Thinking, ‘Oh, cute, a little crush’ minimizes the fact that someone in BUILD would want to have a relationship like anyone else would.”
Eight of the 19 BUILD students are in a romantic relationship. They attend a social skills group that emphasizes friendship and self-esteem first, then they dive into the topic of healthy dating.
At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the students don’t want to be awake. They battle yawns with coffee and stare at their tablets. BUILD instructor Kaitlyn Prothero starts the meeting even though a few students haven’t shown up.
Prothero begins with a video about respecting boundaries. Some students make faces and others comment on the cheesy acting. She hands out a worksheet called Dear Dr. Love and a jar of neon gel pens, and the students write down questions about what it takes to maintain a healthy relationship.
“Let’s make a list of do’s and don’ts on the board,” Prothero suggests.
The students write their answers down in dry-erase marker. Do’s: Give each other space, limit texting, hold hands, God before us. Don’ts: Hookups, cheating, sexual communication, violent behavior.
“Set boundaries,” first-year student Patrick Elmore adds.
That’s a key part of his and first-year student Mikayla Holmgren’s relationship. When she’s angry he gives her space, and she does the same for him. They make it a point to communicate their frustration in person rather than through texting. Emotional boundaries aren’t the only kind they set.
“We hug and hold hands, but no kissing. Mikayla wants to save it for marriage, so we decided to wait,” Elmore said.
Elmore and Holmgren met at a parent-student meeting before school started this year. He asked her out last February after they bonded over their love of golf and the Hallmark channel.
“We really liked each other as friends, so we decided to test it out,” Elmore shrugged.
They waited a day to tell their parents. Sandi Holmgren received the news in a text.
“Mikayla has a new boyfriend,” the text message said. “His name is Patrick.”
The update had come from Holmgren’s friend. Sandi immediately thought of her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, who’d broken her heart multiple times over the last two years. She shed some of her skepticism when she recalled how nice Elmore had been at the parent-student meeting.
“Everyone wants to have that one special person that cares for them,” Sandi said.
For Holmgren, Elmore is that person. They like to eat meals together in the DC, cheer on the basketball team and go bowling at Flaherty’s on Thursday nights. Because they’re first-year students, a mentor comes with them on their dates.
Privacy is scarce most days. To escape the dorms, they sometimes sit in the chairs in the CC outside Allen’s office. They play games on their iPads and joke around.
“She always makes me laugh,” Elmore said as he stared at Holmgren, who flashed a big grin.
“I always look for his smile,” Holmgren added. “He’s funny and talented in sports and speeches.”
Elmore mastered public speaking for the Special Olympics. He hopes to work for the organization after college, while Holmgren plans on teaching art to kindergarteners. They intend to stay together and maybe get married one day.
“It’d be nice to know that someone’s taking care of her and helping her with life,” Sandi said of her daughter.
Elmore and Holmgren will graduate in May 2018, and the milestone will put significant stress on their relationship. They live on opposite sides of the Twin Cities and neither of them can drive. The convenience of a close community is something many BUILD students fear losing.
Georgann Rumsey, program director of the Arc Greater Twin Cities, works to make this transition easier. She scouts out programs that provide housing and jobs for people with intellectual disabilities. According to Rumsey, more families are asking about the importance of romantic relationships for their children as they enter adulthood.
“Twenty years ago that wasn’t the case,” Rumsey said. “Sometimes the people who are close to them don’t realize that they experience love in that way.”
This often leads to a lack of sex education. Rumsey points out that this can cause confusion in the relationship when they don’t know how to explain what they’re feeling physically.
Allen made sure there was no confusion by covering Bethel’s Covenant for Life Together explicitly. She told BUILD students not to touch each other’s butts, breasts or genitals. Some of them had heard it before. Some of them squirmed.
“We say (that) sex is a gift from God and something that you save for marriage,” Allen explained. “Within that we’re not saying they should be ashamed of what they’ve done before. Bethel is about restoration.”
BUILD students follow the same residential rules as other students. They wedge a shoe in the door when the opposite sex is in the room and abide by Covenant expectations, but they have more safety regulations. For instance, BUILD students can only leave campus with people on their Personal Learning Plan. They have to sign in and out, and they can’t take the shuttle by themselves until they reach level four of the program.
Second-year student Ben Boatman leaves campus freely, but has little means of transportation. He’s still looking for a girlfriend — preferably one with a car, he jokes. He has two sisters and plenty of female friends — they all tell him not to go too fast. But Boatman feels like time is running out. He graduates in the spring and has yet to find someone.
“This place has a lot of love,” he said. “I feel it spread everyday, and that’s why I think a relationship is a big thing here.”
He doesn’t trust that the outside world will give him the same opportunities to love. He says Bethel is a powerful school with a predisposition to love. Although Boatman fears the future, he found a way to be content with friendship, which he believes is an equally important type of love. His friendship with his roommate, Kohs, is one he values most. They plan to stay connected, no matter what life after graduation looks like.
For Kohs, marriage and kids remain a question mark. He doesn’t know where he’ll be in five years, or where he’ll work and how he’ll get around without a license, but his classes have equipped him with the confidence to handle it.
“All I need is Kerri and a dog.”