Dillon Ohlemiller is your typical 23-year-old. He attends college, enjoys spending time with friends, and is rarely without his iPod or iPhone. When he finishes school in 2016 he has a big plan: to live independently. This is a goal that neither he, nor his parents, could have envisioned two decades ago.
When the Ohlemiller family adopted Dillon at the age of two, they knew there would be challenges in the years ahead. Dillon was born at 28 weeks, weighed a mere 2lbs. 2oz., and suffered from a heart defect and a respiratory issue. Shortly after being adopted, Dillon was diagnosed with having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the effects of which can include a lifetime of cognitive, physical and behavioral problems. The first step in Dillon’s lifelong relationship with the St. Louis Arc began when he enrolled at Childgarden Early Childhood Center in the Central West End.
Childgarden is the St. Louis Arc’s fully inclusive early education program where children with and without disabilities learn together in classrooms. It was at Childgarden that Dillon received the occupational, speech, and physical therapies that addressed his developmental needs. It was also at
Childgarden that Dillon developed an interest in puppetry and music: two passions that he continued
to pursue in elementary school and beyond.
“The Childgarden staff was very invested in his success,” said Melinda, Dillon’s mom. “He benefitted from the inclusive classroom, and it created the social model he needed.”
The Ohlemillers also sought out the St. Louis Arc’s respite program. This allowed them to pay trusted people to take care of Dillon so that they could spend one-on-one time with their older son, Jake. “Respite was a godsend,” said Melinda.
When he grew into a teenager, Dillon signed up for Neighborhood Experiences, a program where young people develop job skills through volunteering, create a professional portfolio and resume, and meet new friends. Neighborhood Experiences proved to be a defining moment for Dillon.
“He volunteered everywhere and knew everyone – his resume is now longer than mine,” joked Melinda. “Neighborhood kept him busy and stimulated. He gained job skills and was very proud of the work he did.”
As he prepared to graduate from high school, Dillon struggled with what he would do next. “Most kids his age were talking about where they were going to college and he felt left out of that conversation,” explained Melinda.
Enter SUCCEED, a post-secondary program developed in 2013 through a series of collaborations between the St. Louis Arc and the University of Missouri – St. Louis. SUCCEED allows students with disabilities the opportunity to live on campus, while taking classes that help them focus on future employment. Dillon applied in 2014 and was accepted.
Today, when he’s not attending classes or hanging out with his friends at UMSL, you can find
Dillon interning at Bob Kramer’s Marionettes, a puppetry theater located directly across the street from Childgarden. And beginning this fall he will play saxophone for the UMSL pep club at all of their home basketball games. “Every parent wants their child to live a happy, productive life and Dillon has that,” said Melinda.
“The Arc is a great organization,” said Dillon. “They’ve helped me with a lot of personal goals
I’ve had, like getting a job and being independent. Everybody there is committed to helping people like me reach their goals.”
“We will be with the Arc for life,” said Melinda. “Any future program Dillon gets involved with will be Arc-approved.