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The University of Alabama

UA’s RISE Graduation Celebrates Perseverance, Strength

NOTE TO MEDIA: Dress rehearsal for the RISE graduation ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday, July 23, at the Stallings Center. RISE parents, including Amanda Chandler, and Dawn Sandel, RISE music therapist, will be available for interviews during that time.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Preston Alexander “Xander” Chandler was 11 months old, a doctor told his parents that he wouldn’t live more than a year, and they should just take him home and love on him. His mom, however, saw his fighting spirit and refused to give up.

The now 7-year-old boy is one of 21 students who will graduate at RISE’s annual commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 23, at the Stallings Center on The University of Alabama’s campus.

The RISE program, a part of the UA College of Human Environmental Sciences, serves children with disabilities and their typically developing peers, from ages 8 weeks to 5 years. The children are divided by age among six classes, each with 16 students, one teacher and three assistants.

The school’s mission is the same as the University’s — teaching, service and research. The integrated preschool program not only benefits families in the community, it serves as a practicum and internship site for students from UA and other colleges.

But, for Amanda Chandler it was a place for her son to grow and learn and not be made to feel differently from the other children. With numerous medical diagnoses, from mitochondrial myopathy to Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome to cerebral palsy, Xander was maxed out on most of his medications and basically slept for most of his days, his mom said.

He was 14 months old when he first attended RISE. He couldn’t hold up his head, roll or sit by himself — it was like he was a newborn, Amanda Chandler said. Over the years, she saw small changes. He started mimicking other children and rolling to get where he wanted. Then he started using a walker, standing more often and moving toward toys or things he saw.

“It was clear he was trying to make decisions about what he was doing and making more purposeful movements,” Amanda said. “When you have a child that’s nonverbal and can’t tell you what they want, and you don’t understand what they’re saying, something like this is huge.”

But it isn’t just the physical progress; Xander is benefitting because he isn’t isolated because of his special needs.

He is in classes with typical children who care about him and want to help him, Amanda said. For example, every Christmas and Valentine’s holiday children bring in treats, but Xander is tube fed and can’t have those things. This year, there were a couple of children who remembered that Xander can’t have candy, so they brought him a small toy instead, Amanda added.

“RISE builds compassion,” she said. “It helps kids like Xander build skills they wouldn’t otherwise get because parents can’t model that. Seeing children motivates him in a way that seeing me doesn’t. But for those other children, RISE is building compassion and thoughtfulness that most kids don’t get to experience. That’s one of the greatest gifts.”

Xander will start kindergarten at Woodland Forest Elementary in the fall. It will be the first time he and his twin brother, who does not have special needs, are able to attend the same school. While it will definitely be a transition, Amanda said it is one they are very happy to be moving toward.

“It’s very easy to lose hope and lose faith and stay angry when you have a child that suffers so much,” she said. “But the teachers at RISE have experience watching children like my son, and they’ve seen these kids overcome these incredible obstacles and move on and not just live but thrive and continue to make progress. They really keep you focused on moving forward.

“There’s just something very special about taking your child to school and knowing they’re not just being taught, but they are loved,” she added.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.