HOUSTON- Twenty-five years ago, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities had very few options to continue their education after high school. But in 1991, with high hopes, just one instructor and 55 students, Houston Community College (HCC) started an innovative program to help these special students reach their goals.
On April 7, the HCC Vocational Advancement and Skills Training (VAST) Academy will celebrate 25 years of impacting the lives of these students with “A Night of Stars" at the HCC Central campus auditorium. The event will feature a program, dinner and dance.
VAST Academy’s mission is to provide post-secondary transition programs and comprehensive support services, leading to meaningful credentials, employment and independence for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Opportunities include workforce certificates, pre-college and freshman success bridge courses, career readiness credentials, internships and employment assistance.
VAST Academy has served over 2000 students and expanded to four HCC campuses: Central College, Northwest-Spring Branch, Southwest-Stafford and Southwest-Missouri City. There is a staff of 20 with an average of 35-40 graduates each year.
The students have created many success stories, ranging from successful internships with community partners to competitive employment and the acquisition of associate degrees. The theme of the 25th celebration, “A Night of Stars,” honors the many bright accomplishments of VAST Academy students and alumni.
Three VAST Academy alumni will serve as ambassadors for the event. If you go to the Northwest-Spring Branch Academy, you are likely to meet Ellie Barkhouse-Gayer. Ellie is employed there as an office assistant. She serves as an everyday ambassador sharing her story with potential students. Ellie is the only VAST Academy student to be inducted into the National Society for Leadership and Success. Since graduation, Ellie has completed two semesters of college credit classes and has served on a State Board of Education roundtable.
Matthew Biasini knew he wanted to do more with his life after graduating from Elkins High School in 2013, so he enrolled in the VAST Academy in Missouri City. In a short time, Matthew went from being lonely to making new close friends. He made straight A’s and was honored by the HCC Board of Trustees for his success.
Another VAST Academy alumna, Zeyhla Cruz, is determined to live and work in the community. Zeyhla has chosen to advocate for individuals with disabilities and desires to make a difference. She was elected as President of Gulf Coast Self-Advocates in 2016 and also serves on the state board of Texas Advocates
The keynote speaker will be Lex Frieden, a professor of Health Informatics and Rehabilitation at The University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. Frieden directs the Independent Living Research Utilization Program (ILRU) at TIRR Memorial Hermann and was instrumental in conceiving and drafting the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Sue Moraska, Program Director of the VAST Academy, is the original instructor. “It has been an honor to serve our students and to witness their countless success stories as they achieve their dreams of being independent,” Moraska says. “Our students and alumni continue to overcome challenges proving our motto true that education plus employment equals independence.”
HCC Trustee Robert Glaser is the Honorary Chair for the event and dance music will be performed by the Texas Brass Rock Band. For more information and tickets to the event, visit www.hccs.edu/VAST25.
WHAT: HCC VAST Academy 25th year celebration
WHEN: April 7, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Central College Auditorium
1300 Holman St., Houston, TC 77004