The first to graduate was Katie Basden’s paternal grandfather, Osburn Clyde Prather Sr. 1909, and her maternal grandfather Joseph Embree Jenkins Sr. ’32. Next were her parents, Deana Prather ’64 and Osburn Clyde Prather Jr. ’64. Then came her uncle, Joseph Embree Jenkins Jr. ’67 and aunt, Mildred Maxwell Jenkins Shackelford ’68. They were followed by Katie’s brother Clyde Prather III ’91 and sister Joanna Reeves ’00. Basden, a 1991 graduate in information systems management, met her husband Brett Basden ’89 when the two became Auburn cheerleaders. When the Basdens had their children — Brittany Anne, Kallie, and Bradley — it was natural to assume they would also attend Auburn.
But things do not always go as planned.
“When our oldest and youngest were nine months old, we discovered that they were born with a rare genetic defect,” said Katie Basden. “When I say rare, I mean they are just two of the three known cases in the world.”
Brittany Anne and Bradley’s diagnosis affected their brain, liver and spleen. Growing up, they encountered numerous physical and cognitive challenges, requiring Basden to devote much of her life to advocating for her children.
“I learned early on that things for these children rarely run as smoothly as for typical children. You spend your life helping forge the best path you can to ensure these kids have every opportunity for a full life. In our case, this required years of prayer, encouragement from teachers and other parents of special needs children, plus unlimited time and energy on our part,” said Katie Basden.
Despite early obstacles, Brittany Anne successfully transitioned to Auburn in the fall of 2017, where she has benefitted from a dedicated work ethic and resources from the Office of Accessibility. Kallie Basden ’19 graduated Magna Cum Laude in elementary education. She is now working toward her master’s degree while serving as a graduate teaching assistant.
Bradley’s path forward was less certain. His mother recalls a particularly painful moment.
“One day several years ago, we were driving through campus and Bradley looked at the stadium and pointed to himself and said, ‘Auburn?’”
Katie Basden prayed for an answer. Soon thereafter, in the Fall of 2017, they heard about the EAGLES program.
“Bradley applied for the program, was invited to interview, and on May 7, 2018 we received the news that he had been accepted into the inaugural cohort. Little did we know our lives were about to change as much as his.”
THE EDUCATION TO ACCOMPLISH Growth in Life Experiences for Success, or EAGLES, is a postsecondary education program housed in the College of Education’s Department of Special Education, Rehabilitation, and Counseling. The program allows students to engage in a collegiate, on-campus residential experience that focuses on academic enrichment, social and career development, health, wellness and independence. Students take Auburn University classes, EAGLES program-specific classes and participate in extracurricular programs while living and dining on campus.
Mentoring the EAGLES are WINGS (Warmhearted Individuals Nurturing Great Success), current Auburn students selected through a rigorous application and interview process. They assist the EAGLES students with everything from academic tutoring to wellness and social support. They are also job coaches, as each of the EAGLES students holds an on-campus job in an integrated setting. One such WINGS mentor is Anna Penland.
“I’m from South Carolina, so I was familiar with a similar program there. I was thrilled to be selected to work with our inaugural EAGLES cohort,” she said. “Soon after I met them, the EAGLES students became my friends. In fact, some of my closest friends.”
Penland recognizes the difficult situation the EAGLES students are in — they are not oblivious to the stares, pity, or misunderstandings when they go bowling or out for ice cream. First-level WINGS mentors reside with the EAGLES students in the Village Residence Halls, so their relationship goes far beyond the program and into everyday life.
“We all like singing in the car, telling jokes and messing around with each other,” Penland said. “The EAGLES are some of the kindest, hardest-working, funniest, most-lovable friends I’ve ever had.” Only recently have students with intellectual disabilities had viable options after high school. Auburn’s program is unique in its holistic approach to student growth that goes beyond academic enrichment.
EAGLES is also distinctive in that it was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a comprehensive transition program (CTP). It is the first postsecondary program in Alabama to achieve this designation. This recognizes that EAGLES students have met an advising and curriculum structure, and that at least 50 percent of their program time is spent with students without intellectual disabilities. EAGLES students actually spend approximately 95 percent of their time with the larger Auburn student body, engendering a remarkable level of collaboration across campus.
Joining Bradley Basden in the inaugural class was Josh Greiner and Anna Moates. Anna’s sister is Ashley Moates, the 2017 Miss Auburn, who ran on a platform of making dreams come true for people with disabilities.
“Attending Auburn has always been my dream,” said Anna Moates. “As someone with Down syndrome, I never thought this dream could come true. Thanks to the EAGLES program, I am experiencing college life and continuing my family’s legacy.”
For Katie Basden, dropping Bradley off at his campus dorm last summer was both exciting and nerve-wracking. Despite a naturally sunny disposition, Bradley’s apraxia of speech (which disconnects messages from the brain to the mouth) limits his ability to have conversations, a significant hindrance to making friends.
“It was a scary and emotional time for Bradley and for all of the EAGLES parents,” said Katie Basden. “We were entrusting our most precious assets to Auburn and a new program with the hope of changing their lives forever. At that point, we had no idea how our lives would also be forever changed.”
ONE YEAR LATER, Bradley has learned to live independently in his dorm. He walks to class by himself. After learning to use a text-to-talk app on his phone to help him speak when struggling, he was able to give speeches during the spring semester in his speech class. He eats at different dining halls by himself, works at a campus job, and has made numerous friends through the EAGLES and WINGS program.
“These are all opportunities that, as parents, we could never have provided for our children,” said Katie Basden. “When Bradley turned 20 in February, we were able to throw him a party. Thanks to all of his new Auburn friends, there were 20 people there to surprise him. Words can’t express the joy we felt seeing him surrounded by all of his new friends and peers from Auburn. He had never had that before.”
In their on-campus jobs, EAGLES interact with other students, faculty and staff. Josh Greiner works in the campus bookstore in Haley Center and was even part of an employee photoshoot for Camp War Eagle.
“People often talk about what Auburn is doing for the EAGLES students, but this is a reminder of everything the EAGLES do for our campus,” said Kelly Giddens ’08, Greiner’s bookstore supervisor. “Josh has been such a delight to have as an employee. He never fails to impress me with his work ethic and is always eager to learn something new. I look forward to seeing Josh every day as his positive attitude brings joy to everyone at the Auburn University Bookstore.”
As the EAGLES embrace the challenge of balancing school and work, their identity as Auburn students has grown. They have become part of the school’s normal rhythms and routines. Seth Andrews, a WINGS counselor has witnessed this growth.
“Being a WINGS peer mentor gave me the opportunity to help grow inclusion here at Auburn University,” he said. “The EAGLES program is making history at Auburn, and I’m fortunate to have been a part of that. Everyone loves to ‘talk the talk’ of inclusion, but this is a perfect example of ‘walking the walk.’ These are great people to do that with!”
Another strong supporter of the program is former Auburn quarterback Lloyd Nix ’59, who sees EAGLES not only as a benefit to the students themselves, but to the greater Auburn community. Nix’s granddaughter, Lauren, has Down syndrome, and they share the dream of her becoming an Auburn Tiger one day as part of the program. Lauren’s mother and Nix’s daughter, Denise Slupe ’86, has been involved in the program from its conception.
“Not only will Auburn help make these EAGLES students into better people, these students will make Auburn into a better place,” said Nix. “This program will make the state of Alabama a better place. I really believe that.”
WHILE EAGLES HAS POSITIVELY IMPACTED its inaugural students and their families, there are significant costs to support the program. EAGLES students pay a program fee of $15,000 per semester, plus the cost of regular tuition, dining and housing. For this reason, many cannot afford this life-changing experience.
When Katie Basden told her brother about Bradley’s program acceptance, he was shocked at the financial commitment. With his help, the You Might Be For Auburn Foundation got involved. With its matching donation of $25,000, along with the generosity of Auburn people from across the country, the EAGLES program raised more than $73,000 in a three-week period. In addition to these funds, the campaign raised awareness of the program for other potential families.
“The day Bradley was accepted as an EAGLES student, I made a promise to the founders of the program that I would do everything in my power to help raise awareness and funding for the program,” said Katie Basden. “I wanted this program to be available and affordable to all students and families who could benefit from it, regardless of their financial situation.”
Joining Katie Basden and Slupe in launching the EAGLES Foundation to benefit future students was Auburn University Trustee Sarah Newton. A driving force behind the program from the outset, Newton hopes that her grandson Jack, who was born with Down syndrome, will someday enjoy the college experience through the EAGLES program.
“We fell in love with Jack at first sight. Yet our hearts were filled with concerns, not knowing what his future would hold,” said Newton. “It didn’t take long to understand that Jack has dreams and aspirations just like other children. I knew this program was one that Auburn would embrace, and it has done so wholeheartedly. So many people have worked so hard to make this a reality and I am excited to help the program endure.”
College of Education faculty members Karen Rabren, Cari Dunn and Jamie Carney were also prime movers behind the EAGLES vision and used their expertise in special education to give the program its strong foundation.
One of their star students, special education doctoral graduate Betty Patten ’11, is the director of the EAGLES program. As a former special ed teacher at Auburn High School, she believes the program is in the right place to thrive.
“My personal buy-in to the program is real because we are talking about bettering individual lives,” Patten said. “I want to help the EAGLES program become a forever part of Auburn so more people can experience the beauty of this university and all it has to offer.”
Patten remains inspired by her students’ determination.
“Every day I get to share with others about the abilities of our students. As individuals, I love and respect them. They have made history as our first cohort of students with intellectual disabilities to attend Auburn. They are learning to advocate for themselves and are thriving in an inclusive environment. I see them working harder than those without a disability because they really want to be here. They carry such a positive light everywhere they go. I am truly blessed to be a part of this life-changing program.”
THE AUBURN UNIVERSITY BOARD OF TRUSTEES recently approved the “project initiation” phase for a new College of Education building. Currently in the design phase, this is a long-dreamed-of event since the college’s programs are currently housed in seven separate locations. As the college looks forward to a place where its diverse academic programs can collaborate in closer proximity, the EAGLES program will be part of the planning, says College of Education Dean Betty Lou Whitford.
“EAGLES has really gained traction and brought a lot of people together and our dreams for the program have grown, as well,” Whitford observed. “It would be wonderful to have an endowment to offset program costs so that would not be such a barrier. Likewise, we would love to find a way to add a state-of-the-art EAGLES learning lab in the new building and find support for conducting research on the effectiveness of practices that can lead to program improvements.”
This fall, the pioneering first class of EAGLES were joined by a second cohort— D’Vonte Morris, Kyle Murberger, Elizabeth Preston, Sean Teachworth, and Quin Thomas—bringing the total number on campus to eight.
For Katie Basden, who has spent her life advocating for her son’s future, knowing that her own Auburn Family has come full circle is a dream that only a year ago seemed impossible.
“The lives of typical Auburn students and faculty are being positively influenced by their interactions with the EAGLES, just as much as the EAGLES students are being impacted by them,” she said. “The EAGLES program has made the Auburn Family complete.”
For Bradley Basden, gaining the independence and freedom denied to many special needs youth is now a reality.
“People with disabilities are the largest minority group in America,” he said. “But now we are part of something else, and something we all love and believe in: the Auburn Family.”
To learn more or to support the EAGLES program, visit aub.ie/eagles