Individuals with intellectual disabilities have plenty of challenges to overcome. One of those challenges is finding an institution that caters to their needs. However, John Menning works tirelessly to give students with special needs the education they deserve.
Menning is the coordinator of Northwestern’s NEXT program, and he has been giving students an opportunity they thought they may never have.
NEXT is a two-year program that teaches vital life lessons to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. NEXT students learn concepts such as independent living, interpersonal skills, career readiness and self-confidence. Four students have graduated from the NEXT program since Menning started it in 2018, and 10 students are currently enrolled in the program.
The program has recently been approved as a comprehensive transition and postsecondary program by the U.S. Department of Education. NW’s is the second in the state and one of 129 across the country. This approval grants NEXT students access to federal financial aid.
Before arriving at NW, Menning worked in special education for 32 years. In 2009, he started working as the disability service provider in the Peer Learning Center. After serving in this position, Menning was asked to work with a student with Down syndrome, and soon his family began to look for an institution to give him a quality education. Menning was willing to volunteer his time to help the student receive a valuable learning experience.
However, Menning was disheartened by the lack of opportunities for students with disabilities. After the individual graduated in 2018, Menning brought an idea to NW’s administration.
“I went to the administration and asked if we could start a program. I had several families interested in having their son or daughter attend a program similar to what we did with [his previous student with Down syndrome],” Menning said. “It just seemed to be the right thing to do. It was not just in the name of diversity – intellectual diversity if you will – but also because we, as a Christian college, have so much to offer this population.”
A few weeks later, President Christy informed Menning of a $100,000 donation. This was enough to get the program started. However, Christy had one condition: Menning had to oversee the program.
“I could not believe it and just started crying,” Menning said. “It did not take me very long to accept the position, and the rest is history.”
As NEXT coordinator, Menning is involved with his students from start to finish.
“There really is not one typical day,” Menning said. “Each day seems to stand alone. There are always problems to be addressed, mentors that need to be connected to students or parents that need to be contacted.”
His many duties include recruiting, giving tours, scheduling courses, teaching classes and finding job placements for his students after graduation. All his responsibilities may seem daunting, but Menning knows his hard work is worth it.
“The most rewarding part for me is to see them thrive and love being here at NW,” Menning said. “I constantly hear from parents how much they appreciate what NW is doing on behalf of their son or daughter, and to see them graduate is one of the best days of the year.”
On top of impacting the life of every student he has led through the program, Menning’s actions have also touched the people who work with him.
“John Menning is amazing,” program mentor Julia Zora said. Zora runs the NEXT physical education class twice a week and takes several NEXT students to lunch and basketball games.
“I did not know all the work that went into this program until I became a mentor,” she said. “John does it all, and he does it with passion, joy and love.”