Kristi Benson will get a Mother’s Day gift beyond compare this year as she walks across the Colonial Life Arena stage with her son, Drew. Drew began his program four years ago with Kristi starting the next year. Drew, a CarolinaLIFE student, is ready to live independently and begin a new part-time job at Nephron Pharmaceuticals. Kristi will head to Bookman Road Elementary with her Master of Arts in Teaching — Special Education to make a difference for the next generation of students like her son.
“While I was initially nervous about starting a new school, I was excited for dinners with my mom,” Drew says. “I knew my mom would be there for me just like she always was, making sure I was doing my best to succeed.”
Kristi acknowledges that Drew’s sentiment was truthful, but shares that Drew really pushed her to continue her program when managing motherhood, work and school got tough.
“Every time I thought I might pause my studies and wait until things calmed down, Drew would remind me that we had to graduate together,” Kristi says. “This was not the first time Drew kept me going!”
Drew was diagnosed with autism at a young age, but his diagnosis never got in the way of his ambitions. He was passionate about meteorology and insisted on becoming a weatherman. Always the advocate for her son, Kristi said she would do what it took to help him achieve that goal, knowing that his road would be difficult.
“His teachers probably thought I was unrealistic,” Kristi says. “I knew that Drew would rise to our lowest expectation of him. So I set all of our goals as high as we could and did what I could to help him meet them.”
Kristi’s parental involvement, fueled by the love of her son, led her to volunteering regularly at her children’s schools. She initially wanted to serve as a media aide, but a job opened up for a Response to Intervention (RTI) specialist in reading and math, and she took it. Drew began struggling academically between third and fifth grades when his teachers targeted his behaviors more than challenging his mind. Kristi’s passion for this age group began then.
“My husband kept joking that the amount of time I spent at the school warranted a paycheck,” Kristi says. “So, I found a way to make that happen. I really felt like Drew fell through the cracks in some ways. I wanted to make sure that did not happen to any other child.”
Kristi was introduced to the College of Education through a program from the South Carolina Department of Education called SC-CREATE, or Centers for the Re-Education and Advancement of Teachers in Special Education and Related Services Personnel. This program allowed Kristi to pursue her master’s degree at no cost to her, giving her the freedom to advance her education and still care for her family.
“I have four kids, two in college, and one is a senior in high school,” Kristi says. “It was not in the cards for me to continue my education at this time. SC-CREATE opened that door.”
The College of Education became a home for Drew as well. He was introduced to the CarolinaLIFE program his freshman year of high school and knew that it would be a good fit. He saw the possibility of having a career beyond a job and has enjoyed getting to know other students in the program.
“Drew is more confident in his decision-making and has found his voice,” Kristi says. “I have always felt like everyone knows me as ‘Drew’s mom!’ It was only fitting that he would introduce me to the college as well.”
“I can’t wait to live in my own apartment,” Drew says. “I’ve made friends in my program that I will live with in Columbia. My plans post-college are to work and continue my hobbies. I would really like to travel around the world!”
Drew is passionate about travel, art, music and movies. He listens to Hans Zimmer soundtracks and plays piano. He wants to travel the world and is not shy about making new friends. He currently thinks a Ph.D. may be a little lofty but is not taking his dream of being a weatherman off the table.
Kristi will begin her new job this summer working on individualized education plans for her future students. She will continue working with her mentor-teacher and feels confident about what she learned in her program.
“I thought I had a good handle on things,” Kristi says. “The classroom management skills I learned in my teaching internship were invaluable. I feel prepared for the fall and I gave my program 110 percent. My biggest advice to my fellow students would be to put in the work and do the reading!”
Both Bensons are looking forward to crossing the stage at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday, May 7, together.
CarolinaLIFE is an individualized, non-degree program for students with identified, diverse learning needs (e.g. intellectual disability). The program curriculum focuses on five core areas: academic instruction, career education and training, independent living, social and community engagement and personal development.