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Local News

Union, Barrington Hills women start Judson University program for students with disabilities

ELGIN – When Nancy Binger of Union was pregnant with her third child, she found out he would be born with Down syndrome.

At first, Binger thought her son’s birth would ruin her life. 

Now her son, Cody, is just more than a year old, and because of him and the idea from another mother of a child with Down syndrome, Judson University in Elgin is piloting a program for students with intellectual disabilities. 

The program – Road to Independent living, Spiritual formation and Employment – is geared toward students ages 18 to 25 years old and will provide them with a certificate of completion after two years. 

“I am so excited that because of Cody coming, other students are going to be able to go to college that didn’t even think it was going to be possible,” said Binger, vice president for enrollment management and strategic planning at Judson. “It means a lot.”

A few years ago, the RISE program started as a concept by Gayle Gianopulos, a Barrington Hills mother of four girls – two of whom have Down syndrome. 

“I did a lot of research, and there are programs out there – there’s great programs out there – but none of them had a faith-based emphasis, which is what was important,” Gianopulos said. 

Judson will be the first Christian university in the Chicago area to have a program like this, officials said. RISE was modeled off a similar program at Bethel University, a Christian college in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Gianopulos’ path crossed with Binger’s when the Judson alumni were connected through the school so Binger could receive advice on raising a child with special needs. 

Binger said she had been wanting to go to the next level with her job at Judson and wanted a platform to fight for.

“So when [Gianopulos] told me about this idea, it was like this intersection of two people’s desires and passions to make a difference and they connected – and it only worked because I had Cody,” Binger said. 

RISE Program Director Kathy Lambert, now of West Dundee and formerly of Algonquin, said she hopes that through the program, students with intellectual disabilities can be integrated into campus life at Judson. The Christian liberal arts college has an enrollment of about 1,290 students, according to its website.

In August, 12 RISE students will make up the inaugural class, and each student will take classes to learn independent living; Bible and theology; and social, consumer math and health and fitness skills, Lambert said. Students also will pick a concentration and attend their concentration classes with traditional students. 

RISE students will be supported by other Judson student mentors, who will help the students with disabilities with housing, social events, classes and jobs and internships.

Lambert said she will encourage student mentors to see that RISE students are more similar than different from students without disabilities.

“All of us have strengths, and all of us have weaknesses or things that we’re not particularly good at,” Lambert said. “It just happens to be that people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, what they’re not good at tends to be more obvious.” 

Through the program, Lambert said she hopes RISE students will be able to gain social and independent living skills, as well as become competitively employed.

Although RISE students must attend chapel three times a week, they do not have to be Christian or submit a faith statement to apply for the program. Applications for the program are due Jan. 31.

In 2018, a second RISE class will be added, and Binger said she hopes the program will grow class sizes in the future.

“The tears that I’ve shed over having Cody come into my life have been flipped into lots of happy tears,” Binger said. “And when I see these kids walk across the stage at graduation, it’s going to be pretty monumental.”

Businesses interested in working with the RISE program to provide jobs or internships can contact Lambert at 847-628-2524 or For information on the program or to donate, visit

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