Brandon Borden, like most students
at Tarrant County College’s Arlington campus, gets himself to school in the mornings, goes to his classes and goes home afterward. Brandon, however, is a special student in a special program – First Choice.
Now in its 19th year at Southeast Campus, First Choice offers mentally challenged young adults a curriculum that, depending on their needs and abilities, helps develop life skills, prepares them for employment and readies them for transition into the regular college program.
First Choice began after Dr. Carrie Tunson, Southeast Campus vice president for community and industry education, was approached by a group of parents whose special-needs children had few options after graduating from high school. One parent, Lawrence Odom, said that were are no jobs or social activities available and a long waiting list for state agency workshops.
“They don’t seem to fit in with any group and we wondered, ‘Now what?’ So when Ms. Tunson listened to us with such caring and so enthusiastically, we felt we finally had hopes for some help.”
Tunson took the challenge in stride,
but it wasn’t always easy. “When I first developed this program I often thought I had made a mistake,” she says. “It was a lot of hard work, and many people did not understand why I was helping this population. However, when you are committed to doing what is right you just move on.”
More than 1,500 students have participated since, and Brandon and his parents are happy for him to be one of them. After graduation from Mansfield Timberview High School in 2012, there was nothing to do but sit at home … bored. “He’s very social, very interactive,” says his mother, Therese, who teaches in Mansfield. “So keeping him social, keeping him outgoing, keeping him thinking and using his mind is the thing we like.”
“He gets up in the morning, rides Handitran to school and pays the driver. He goes into the building, knowing where he’s supposed to be,” says John, his father. “So independence is the biggest thing. That, and the things he gets to cook in class.”
Brandon is in the vocational preparation module
of the program and considers himself a budding chef. He loves to cook, he says, “because I like food. I like to cook casseroles, especially Mexican, and I like to cook lasagna.”
Because of his physical limitations, a job in the food service industry is unlikely. “But my mom and me have talked about having our own take-out business after she retires,” he says.
His teacher, Rex Allen, has been with the program since its inception. “These students really want to learn,” he says, “and that’s what inspires me about this program. I learn more from them than I’ll ever be able to teach them.”
Besides cooking, Brandon takes choir. His favorite song, R. Kelley’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” has lyrics very appropriate to First Choice students:
“There are miracles in life I must achieve,
But first I know it starts inside of me.
If I can see it, then I can be it.
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it.
I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky.”