Fundraising gala for University Participant Program scheduled for April 7

Former University Participant Program student Lizzie King (front, center) leads a group of visitors during a tour of WCU’s Blue Ridge Residence Hall in February 2017. Educators from an Austrian teachers college and representatives of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill visited the campus to learn about the WCU program, which is considered to be a model both nationally and internationally. King completed the UP Program in May 2017.

The University Participant Program at Western Carolina University is completing a decade of helping college-age individuals with intellectual disabilities transition into a more engaged and independent way of living, and those involved in the program are organizing an April fundraising event to mark that milestone.

The UP Program Benefit Gala is set for Saturday, April 7, at Laurel Ridge Country Club in Waynesville. With ticket prices set at $50 for students and $100 for all others, the event is being held not just to showcase the program’s positive impact, but also to raise funds to support its operations and provide scholarships for its students, who are required to pay the same tuition and fees as every other student at the university.

WCU’s UP Program began in 2007 to address the need for inclusive services beyond high school for individuals with disabilities. The two-year on-campus living and learning experience facilitates the transition of the students from secondary school to adult life with education, employment and independent living.

Students being recognized for completing the University Participant Program get together with students receiving degrees in inclusive education prior to the start of a May 2017 commencement at WCU. They are (from left) Allie Marlow, inclusive education graduate; Cody Thompson, UP graduate; Lizzie King, UP graduate; Jim Carter, UP graduate; Paige Soderman, UP graduate; Kasey Nickelston, inclusive education graduate; and Alex Joyner, inclusive education graduate. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Kelley)

Over the years, a total of 34 students have been admitted to the program as it has functioned through a combination of private donations and funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Four new students are admitted each year, with eight students enrolled at any given time, but demand for the program is five to 10 times that, said Kelly Kelley, a WCU associate professor of inclusive and special education who co-directs the program with David Westling, the university’s Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education.

UP Program students participate in all aspects of campus life as they live in residence halls, including auditing classes. Over the past decade, UP students have participated in more than 230 courses across all six of WCU’s academic colleges.

The April 7 fundraiser, set for 6:30 to 10:30 p.m., will include a buffet-style dinner, cash bar, silent auction and the stories of UP students, who will talk about what the program has meant to them. The gala, the first official fundraising event in the program’s history, is open to everyone and is being organized by Kelley and Leslie Stevens, whose son is enrolled in the program.

Ticket purchases are requested by Thursday, March 15, by visiting the UP Program website at, clicking on the “Donate Now!” button and filling out the online form, including the total amount being paid for the tickets as the donation amount. The details of the ticket purchase can be listed in the comments section of the form.

More information about the gala and ticket purchases is available by contacting Stevens at 828-575-6495 or emailing her at Checks and ticket orders also can be mailed to this address: Kelly Kelley, 152-D Camp Building, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, N.C., 28723, with checks made out to “WCU Foundation.”