“Ready?” says Jamie Roland, 23, sitting cross-legged on a color-splashed rug in a classroom at the Bloomfield Early Learning Center.
Deajah Beckford, 3, sitting next to him, is raring to go. She leans in and taps the opening illustration of Stellaluna the bat, as Roland begins his weekly read-aloud session with the bright-eyed, inquisitive child.
But is the world ready for Jamie Roland? That’s the question. Put it this way: If you were going to follow him around for a typical week, you had better be on your A game.
He works three part-time jobs, including in the mailroom at the University of Hartford. Roland loves riding co-pilot in the van with Michael Pascucci, distributing mail along with smiles and goodwill, and deepening the dozens of connections he’s made around campus. During the semester, he serves as an informal research and teaching assistant for two professors in the education department, checking on whether students are “on task” in their group projects, flipping slides, working the smart board and generally serving as a living lesson in the mutual benefits of inclusion.
Sometimes, he is held up as an example of someone who is paying attention in class.
So immersed was Roland in the subject matter that he became the focus of a paper that Michael Pascucci’s daughter Mikayla Pascucci wrote on how people with disabilities can gain independence at work. She is an elementary and special education major at the University of Hartford and Roland’s job coach there.
Roland traveled to St. Petersburg, Fla., with Pascucci and Professor Sheetal Sood to present the article at an international conference.
And then there is the time he spends each Thursday afternoon reading, in a quiet, otherwise empty room, to Deajah, a pile of children’s books splayed at his feet.
He said his time with Deajah is special, and that he worked hard, poring over books on history and geography, to become a good reader.
Roland, who has Down syndrome, is the sum of many parts: his own tireless drive; his mother Lisa Roland’s understated but flawlessly aimed advocacy (she helped him connect with University of Hartford and with Mikayla Pascucci, who was Jamie’s friend at Hall High School in West Hartford); and his largely typical student experience at Hall. There, he basked in the support of classmates, had only a few modifications to his course work and graduated with his class.
In his junior year at Hall, Roland, who worked for hours every day on his homework and had tutors, was inducted into the National Honor Society.
Lisa Roland, a retired physician, said that she and her husband, Dr. Phillip Roland, want each of their three children — Jamie, Helena, 22, and Benjamin, 18 — to give back to a community that helped shape them.
For Jamie, it was particularly important that he be doing something that challenged him.
“He does best with his peers, so that meant a college environment,” Lisa Roland said.
About four and a half years ago, Lisa Roland cold-called Sood at University of Hartford and asked if there was a place for her son at the university. He began as an intern, and, two years ago, became a paid, part-time employee.
After Jamie Roland had had a couple of job coaches, his mother called Mikayla Pascucci, who at that point had just finished her sophomore year, and asked her to take over as his work guide — but with a different approach.
“Lisa wanted me to help ween Jamie off of job coaches, so he could learn to rely on his own resources and the people around him, and to ask questions, instead of depending on a job coach to follow him around. That would help him become independent,” said Pascucci. She graduated in May and plans to pursue a master’s degree in special education.
Sood and Lisa Zawilinski, the professor who chairs the university’s education department, already had invited Roland to help in their classrooms.
“It gave me a chance to include him in the work I do,” said Sood. “After the first week, I realized that this was also a great opportunity for the students — they were seeing inclusion happening right there. They would come back from doing field work and be able to connect it to what was happening in class, and to ask, ‘Why wasn’t this happening in their [hometown] schools?’”
Pascucci said Roland’s participation in her classes contributed mightily to her education.
“You can be taught inclusion and the tools to independence, but to see it — it was a huge learning experience,” Pascucci said.
With her son as the inspiration, Lisa Roland has been working for nearly five years with other parents to start a live-in, college-level program for young men and women with disabilities. They are looking for a campus to host the program.
For Roland’s part, he’s showing no signs of flagging. He also works part-time at Voya Financial in Bloomfield and in the café at the Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.
“He’s up every morning with a smile,” said Lisa Roland. “He never complains.”
Back at the early learning center, having finished with Stellaluna, Roland plucks from the pile a book on animals.
“All right — which one is that?” he says to Deajah, glancing at her over the top of his glasses.
“A tiger,” she says.
“All right, and that?”
“All right, and that?
“A cheetah,” the child says. “A cheetah’s my favorite.”
“OK,” says Jamie. And he starts to read the story.