If you ask Harry Dydo who his hero is, he scratches his chin for a few seconds before the answer dawns on him and his entire face lights up with a smile. “ME!” he responds, as his parents burst into laughter. The truth is Harry has it backward: he is the hero to just about everyone he meets.
Harry is a Syracuse University senior, and like his peers, he’s looking forward to what lies ahead: graduation, getting a job, owning a home and getting married to his girlfriend, Gabby. He was born with Down syndrome, and despite the obstacles in his path, has fully embraced life. The highlight so far has been the opportunity to attend Syracuse University and serve as a student manager for the men’s basketball team.
InclusiveU made this unlikely story possible, as it does for scores of students with intellectual and developmental disabilities on the Syracuse University campus. InclusiveU students experience college just like everybody else—they take classes, join clubs and attend athletic and social events. Many of them, like Harry, live in residence halls.
An Unexpected Challenge
Harry’s got a great big personality that spreads joy like a breeze when he enters a room. But when he was born 22 years ago, Harry’s parents were blindsided. “We didn’t know that he’d have Down syndrome,” says his mother, Colette Powers. “I was in shock, but a friend told me I actually appeared really calm and composed—as if I’d said, “I’ve got this.”
She forged ahead, and so did her husband, Matt Dydo, as well as Harry’s older brother Elliott, 28, and younger brother Tanner, 18. “It was an education,” says Dydo. “As new parents of a special needs child you know absolutely nothing about what you’re facing. You’re full of fear.”
But as time went on and Harry’s exuberant spirit filled their Cazenovia home, the fear decreased a bit. “He became the nucleus of our family,” his father says. Harry was an altar server at church, played baseball and soccer, went skiing and horseback riding and took part in Boy Scouts and the Special Olympics. He even played on the varsity soccer team at Cazenovia High School, where he was crowned Prom King his junior year.
“Growing up in a small town, Harry was always included,” Powers says. “If there was ever a mean kid on the bus, the other kids would protect him.” She and her husband always tried to make decisions about Harry as a team, with a goal of giving Harry as much autonomy as possible. “It’s not about our fear,” Dydo says, “it’s about him experiencing life and doing what he’s capable of.”
Mentors and Friends
What he’s capable of has expanded significantly since Harry enrolled at Syracuse University. It took a lot of preparation to get him oriented to campus, but there is an active network of mentors to guide students like Harry on his college journey. Peer mentors support InclusiveU students in class with things like organization, note taking, participation and explaining material. They are typically Syracuse University students who can also help with homework, navigating campus and dining halls and participating in campus activities.
“The outer world is ‘frozen’ when we are all together,” says Jared Khan-Bagley, a peer mentor, trainer and seminar facilitator who is majoring in inclusive elementary and special education in the School of Education. “The challenges we all face disappear when we’re together, which is a reminder of what friendship is: love, dedication to one another and enjoying the time we all share.”
Peer2Peer Partners are volunteers who just want to share a little bit of themselves each week with students like Harry. They might meet for coffee or lunch, go to the gym, help with homework or hang out and talk. Peer trainers help with orientation and matching students. A component of this program is Peer2Peer Events, which involves making a list of fun things happening on campus and guiding students through the process of joining in.
Residential mentors live in close proximity to InclusiveU students in the residence halls. They provide companionship and support in the form of reminders (remember your keys; check the weather) and help in case of emergency.
Harry doesn’t have a designated residential mentor this year, but he does have Chloe, Olivia and Meghan—good friends who are also InclusiveU students. They live in a suite near Harry in Watson Hall. “They rely on each other just like all college friends do,” says Beth Myers, executive director of Syracuse University’s Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education . “Harry helps them as much as they help him, with different things. I saw Chloe tie Harry’s shoe walking across campus, and I also saw Harry taking her to the gym for her workout, encouraging her to get moving,” Myers adds. “It’s a give and take.”
Joining a Community
“We talk a lot about independence, but our goal is really interdependence,” says Myers. “We all want to be part of a community, and that’s what our students find here. It’s a true college experience as part of the Syracuse University community, with friends, professors, roommates, coworkers and classmates. They become part of something bigger than any one of us. It gives all of our students a chance to be part of something so impactful.”
For Harry, the significance of this opportunity goes well beyond taking classes and making friends on campus. He developed a love of Orange athletics at a young age. “As a little kid he’d dress completely in orange and watch Syracuse videos over and over again—football and basketball,” his dad says. Harry’s obsession with the basketball team was legendary, and when Coach Jim Boeheim’s wife Juli heard that Harry would be attending Syracuse University, she suggested that he become a student manager for the basketball team.
Syracuse is my life!
Harry takes his job very seriously, but it’s impossible to conceal the fact that he’s having a great time as he distributes water and towels to the players, along with a high five or fist bump and a huge smile. “Syracuse is my life!” he exclaims.
Opportunity and Gratitude
Harry is on target to earn a college certificate in May 2020, but first he’s completing an internship at the Barnes Center at The Arch , a health and wellness facility that opened on campus recently. His parents support his plans to get a job and a place of his own. As Harry moves through the life stages that once seemed impossible, his mother overflows with gratitude to Syracuse University. “To have the opportunity to go to college, to be like his brothers, to have a sense of pride and independence—it means everything,” Powers says.
His father believes that Harry’s life has been a gift to them with a very special meaning. “I think Harry is a messenger,” Dydo says. “He teaches others about diversity and kindness.” He hopes that when people are touched by Harry’s joyful spirit and gentle nature, they learn something positive about people with disabilities... and pass it on.