Forever friendship formed through University of Iowa's REACH Program

Frances Williams (left) and Torie Kehret (right) never knew one another until they joined The University of Iowa's REACH Program. Now, they're inseparable (photo courtesy of Torie Kehret).

Torie Kehret and Frances Williams haven't always been friends. In fact, less than five years ago, they didn't know the other existed.

The pair met through The University of Iowa's REACH Program -- a certificate program for students with intellectual, cognitive, and and learning disabilities -- as first-year students at orientation.

Ever since, cliché or not, the two have been inseparable.

The two completed REACH's two-year certificate program in 2015, electing to return for a third year, graduating in May 2016.

During their time in Iowa City, Torie, who has an intellectual disability and a physical disability (cerebral palsy) and Frances, who has an intellectual disability, took life skills courses from money management to domestic work, held internships related to their interests, and expanded their social network while cultivating their independence.

The day after graduation, the two moved in together, and have lived independently for nearly a year.

Their symbiotic relationship is evident after one interaction, where the two interject in conversation, overlapping one another to complete each other's thoughts and correct each other's sentences.

"There's a two-year program," begins Torie, describing REACH, "for students with intellectual program..." "Disabilities," Frances corrects. The two laugh before Torie catches her breath just long enough to say, "Thank you."

Then it's back to laughter.

"They're best friends," said Kate Williams, Frances' mother, with Torie's father Dan nodding along.

Both families said the REACH Program has exceeded their wildest dreams, with both daughters becoming "more outgoing and independent."

While the transformations are eye-opening in many ways, Dan said he's disappointed with the lack of financial aid for programs assisting young people with impairments.

"You're talking 25-grand a year, and there's no financial help for it," said Dan. "They need to have scholarships for this stuff. If you can help these kids get jobs and be on their feet better, that's going to cost society less money. That'd be money well-spent."

The statistics support Dan's claim, with a 1.7 percent attrition rate for the most recent class admitted to the REACH Program (which compares to an average college attrition rate of around 25 percent).

REACH students also have a higher rate of employment.

"We know that the national rate of employment for people with disabilities is consistently less than 20 percent," said REACH Director Pamela Ries. "Since the program began, over 80 percent of our students are employed."

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