“Living Out Their Dreams”

BUILD, Bethel’s two-year comprehensive transition program for students with intellectual disabilities, launched in 2015 to give students an opportunity to grow more independent and gain skills in a supportive, Christian environment. And today, program graduates are meeting their goals and thriving.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

December 02, 2021 | 11 a.m.

Tyler Sarff BUILD’19

Tyler Sarff BUILD’19 poses during his shift working at Boston Scientific. He's one of many graduates from the BUILD program who are finding success in their careers and meeting their life goals.

Tyler Sarff BUILD’19 has scored a goal at Allianz Field, home to Minnesota United FC (MNUFC) of Major League Soccer. He’ll compete in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, and he has set more bold goals for his future. And he credits Bethel University’s BUILD program with helping him become more confident and gain tools for his future. “It changed my whole point of view on life,” he says. Inspired by his time in BUILD, Sarff wants to one day find a job helping others. “I’ve kind of fallen in love with helping people just like myself,” he says.

Sarff is one of many graduates from Bethel University’s BUILD program who are finding success. To BUILD Director Dawn Allen, these graduates’ stories reflect a simple message. “This program is working—to help students meet their own personal goals, to be more independent, to maintain integrated, meaningful employment,” she says. And that’s exactly what BUILD, Bethel’s supportive and comprehensive two-year comprehensive transition program for students with intellectual disabilities, set out to do when it launched in 2015. “It’s exciting because you’re seeing that students are living out their dreams,” Allen says.

Here are a few stories of how graduates are finding success after BUILD:

"This program is working—to help students meet their own personal goals, to be more independent, to maintain integrated, meaningful employment."

— BUILD Director Dawn Allen

Tyler Sarff BUILD’19

“I’m going to be representing Bethel pretty well, and the program,” Sarff says. “You can tell here. See.” He holds up the corners of his T-shirt, revealing a large printed “BETHEL.” Sarff is preparing to compete in bowling at the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando. It’s the latest in many sports milestones that include a BMX bike demo for X Games and a stint on the MNUFC Unified Team. “It was one of a kind. It was super cool,” he says, though he’s still disappointed by two tough losses in penalty shootouts.

While sports are a passion, they represent just one of the ways Sarff has found success after BUILD. “I’ve gained a lot more confidence in myself to do more things on my own,” he says. Looking back, Sarff is pleased with how BUILD was inclusive and how program leaders strove to provide the best college experience possible for each student. He loved making friends in BUILD and across campus, and he’s still in touch with many of them. He competed in several unified sports and built connections with many friends who played on several Bethel sports teams.

BUILD also helped him gain the skills and tools to take his career to new heights. After working at a restaurant, Sarff recently started a full-time job in Boston Scientific’s assembly department. It’s been an adjustment, and he jokes about starting his workdays at 6 a.m. “I’m not a fan of waking up early, but that’s adult life,” he says. But he’s happy to work with devices that help others. One day, he still hopes to pursue a career helping people with various abilities like himself, possibly with Special Olympics Minnesota. “I just like being involved with this kind of community,” he says.

Sarff is eager to move into an apartment now that he’s working with Boston Scientific, but the process has been slow. Though Allen notes most students set goals of living in their own homes or apartments, it happens at a different pace for each student. For some like Sarff, it’s a matter of circumstances. He is on hold with an apartment service that provides apartment-style living for individuals with varying abilities, but COVID-19 slowed the process.

Sarff encouraged students considering BUILD to get involved in many activities, especially since the program is only two years. “Enjoy the experience and definitely enjoy what God has to offer to you,” he says.

Missy Ames BUILD’19

Missy Ames BUILD’19 loved getting the chance to gain more skills through the BUILD program. Today, she enjoys living on her own and working in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Missy Ames BUILD’19

With a wide smile and infectious laugh, Missy Ames BUILD’19 talks about her favorite spots near her Grand Avenue apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. They include Salut, Café Latte—she loves the desserts and soup—and Aveda Salon. Most of all, she’s thrilled with the independence of having her own place and planning her own schedule. “I really, really like it,” she says.

Ames jumped at the chance to be in the BUILD program, hoping to gain more life skills before she started working. “I really wanted that opportunity to go to college,” she says. Ames admits she faced challenges in her first year on campus, but she thrived in her second and was able to take more advanced classes. “I felt more challenged, and I felt it was just a really good year,” she says. She also lived next door to good friends in Bethel’s College of Arts & Sciences, allowing her to make lifelong memories.

Ames also loved her cooking classes at Bethel. Now in her own place, she still loves to cook and bake. “I try to cook something new like once or twice a week when I’m off of work, and I take that time to learn something new and just enjoy food,” she says. Independent living skills are a staple of the BUILD program. With support, Allen notes students gradually expand their skills while living on campus. In the first year, they live in a shared dorm and are responsible for their own space. They progress to living in an apartment on campus in the second year, which comes with more responsibility and more spaces to care for—a kitchen, a living room, and a bathroom. Eventually, they cook six meals a week, including a shared meal with their roommates. “It’s just that next step of beginning to do more meal planning, more grocery shopping, sticking to a budget, and then that self-determination of choosing what they want to eat for their meals and then cooking it,” Allen says.

Today, Ames works at Kowalski’s Market on Grand Avenue in the dairy department. BUILD helped her harness the skills for her work. She interned with Bethel’s theatre department her first year, and her second year she worked at David’s Bridal in Roseville, Minnesota, where she improved her computer and phone skills. Ames encouraged people considering BUILD to be proactive, thinking about courses and internships they want to complete and their future goals.

Allen is also pleased to see relationships continuing after Bethel. Along with the regular student gatherings, friendships continue to endure. Former students from BUILD have been bridesmaids and attendants at the weddings of friends they met at Bethel. Another read scripture at a friend’s wedding.

Daniel Cline BUILD’19

Daniel Cline BUILD’19 talks on FaceTime from the lobby of Bethel’s Community Life Center. He recently finished a shift working in the Monson Dining Center, and he’s watching for a Lyft to take him home to his apartment in New Brighton, Minnesota.

When Cline came to Bethel, his parents, Geoff and Joy, wanted to give their son a chance to live on his own away from their influence and assistance. At Bethel, they saw their son thrive. Today, he’s continuing to enjoy opportunities to live independently. Since May, Cline has lived with College of Arts & Science alum Logan Fisco ’21 through a program called Rumi, which pairs people with disabilities with roommates. While some former students from BUILD like Ames live on their own, Allen notes others live in supported apartments or near their parents for help. “I just am so excited and proud of them to find what works for them, finding that next step that will enable them to continue to live as independently as possible,” Allen says.

Cline loves living in his own place. “I like having coffee in the mornings, and we have neighbors down the street from us that come to Bethel,” he says. He enjoys spending time with his friends and neighbors, going out to eat, having movie nights, playing games, and watching football—he’s an avid Nebraska Cornhuskers and Green Bay Packers fan. He stays in touch with fellow BUILD alums and friends from campus, gathering with them about once a month. Working in the dining center, Cline enjoys seeing people on campus as he makes and serves pasta for weekday lunches. And he enjoys attending Chapel.

He says the program helped him learn to be kind and get along with others. Through classes and an internship at the Children’s Museum in St. Paul, Cline says BUILD taught him life skills like doing laundry and cleaning, and it taught him the skills to get his job.
Justin Evilsizer BUILD'20

Like his good friend Tyler Sarff, Justin Evilsizer BUILD'20 is an avid sports fan and still gets back to campus when he can to support Bethel teams. He works an lives in the Plymouth, Minnesota, area.

Justin Evilsizer BUILD'20

A framed photo of the Minnesota Wild playing at the Xcel Energy Center hangs on the wall above Justin Evilsizer BUILD’20 as he talks. His apartment’s decorations center mostly around his love for Minnesota pro sports teams—and Bethel.

Since August 2020, Evilsizer has lived on his own in a supported apartment, navigating public transit to and from part-time jobs at Lunds & Byerlys supermarkets and Culver’s restaurant. But his parents, Coreen and Brian, admit they weren’t sure he would be able to live on his own. After high school and a two-year transition program, Evilsizer and his family chose the BUILD program because it offered a step toward more independence—but it was in a safe environment on Bethel’s campus. “It was a way for us to see how he would do on his own,” Coreen says.

Evilsizer surprised his parents. Coreen remembers him calling her from the Target store near Bethel one day asking her for help picking a cereal. After arranging it with BUILD program leaders, he had taken a Bethel shuttle over to get groceries. “It just kind of caught us off guard that he was off campus by himself,” Coreen recalls. “That made us say we need to step back and let him do this on his own because he’s more capable than we originally thought.”

Along with harnessing the skills to grow more independent, Evilsizer enjoyed his time at Bethel. “I liked seeing friends, going to sporting events,” he recalls. He gives a long list of the Bethel teams he supported: “I liked to go to football, hockey, and basketball, and I liked to go to softball and volleyball.” His mom laughs, adding, “Pretty much any of them he could get to.” Evilsizer played unified sports like basketball, bowling, and broomball. And he especially enjoyed getting to know student mentors, a team of about 100 traditional students who support students in BUILD. They helped him with homework, made sure he got to class, and more.

Evilsizer still sees his friends from the BUILD program, participating in what many call “the BUILD Buddies Group.” And he still gets back to campus. “I went to the Homecoming game with my friend, Tyler,” he says, referring to Sarff.

Coreen urges people considering BUILD to just go for it and have faith it will work out, even if they’re on the fence. She also recommended keeping communication open with the BUILD team.

In all, Allen notes BUILD gives students a chance to grow, expand their skills, gain confidence, and boldly take the next step. “So often, the only thing that students need is an opportunity,” Allen says. “God and the students take it from there.”



BUILD Graduates

Faculty Research Shows Success

Along with stories that reflect the success of Bethel’s BUILD program, data is also backing that up. Bethel faculty members Mary Lindell, Jessica Daniels, and Mary Michener conducted research on the program and found that students with intellectual disabilities grew in self-determination through attending BUILD. “The findings of this research indicate that the opportunity-rich environment of independent living on campus, the network of support provided by the BUILD program and the university, and the community of belonging that the BUILD students experienced contributed to the participants’ growth in self-determination,” reads their study “The Lived Experience of College Students with Intellectual Disabilities.” Their research will publish soon in The Journal of the International Association of Special Education. Lindell calls the opportunities afforded to students through the BUILD program revolutionary. She says it shows significant growth from options historically available to people with intellectual disabilities. Through interviews with students, their study found that the themes of social experience, independence, safety, and belonging emerged as vital components of the program. And they argued such methods could have positive effects outside Bethel. “These findings offer intervention components to consider in designing and implementing future initiatives for individuals with disabilities across international contexts, including public policy, government and private support systems, and residential and school programs,” the study concludes. Lindell is conducting further research on Bethel and the BUILD program, and she hopes to publish an additional study or present at conferences next year.



Study in the BUILD program at Bethel.

Bethel's BUILD program provides a supportive and comprehensive educational experience for individuals with intellectual disabilities. You'll experience dynamic and encouraging instruction, career-oriented curriculum, specialized mentorship, and on-campus living—all within a supportive Christian environment.

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