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PACERLIFE FAMILY NIGHT AT STROM THURMOND HIGH SCHOOL: USC Aiken Program to Offer Special Needs Students Support with Employment, Independent Living in 2023

Johnston, SC – The smile on Hunter Wilson’s face said it all. But it was only a reflection of the other hopeful smiles in the room on the faces of Strom Thurmond High School (STHS) students and parents who attended USC Aiken’s recent PacerLIFE Family Night. Wilson, who serves as a paraprofessional at STHS, also wanted to learn more.

The new PacerLIFE program, launching in August of 2023, will afford special needs students the opportunity to continue their education after high school by attending college classes, learning life skills and job skills with the goal of obtaining competitive employment in the workforce. There are a number of similar programs across the country, and even five here in South Carolina, but none are closer than Clemson University in the Upstate or the University of South Carolina in Columbia. That’s where USC Aiken, and program director Dr. Melissa Martin, come in.

In the PacerLIFE program, LIFE serves as an acronym for Learning Is For Everyone.

“Only eighteen percent of those with intellectual disabilities nationally are employed, and of those who are employed, they are only making around eleven thousand dollars per year,” stated Dr. Martin. “Programs like this have started across the country, but there are none here in the CSRA. We feel our campus at USC Aiken is a good fit. Our campus is smaller than some larger schools and we have a great layout. We feel that will allow us to provide the support students will need.”

“We hope the program will help to develop students in two ways, through employment and independent living,” Dr. Martin added. “We want the students to have a job by the time they leave us and we want them to be working at least twenty hours a week and we hope they keep that job. We also want them to learn to live independently. Can they live by themselves? Can they get an apartment with friends and be safe? Can they use the stove and pay bills?”

When Edgefield County School District (ECSD) Director of the Office of Exceptional Children, Jerrilyn Johnson, herself a USC Aiken alumnus, heard about the program she knew she wanted to present it to ECSD families.

“Dr. Martin reached out to me to let me know they were going to pilot the program and I was thrilled because our goal is to ensure all students are college and career ready so this was spot on with what we want for our students,” commented Johnson. “Some students with disabilities and their families are reluctant to go to a school that is far away so having this program at USC Aiken is very important because all students will have an opportunity. It’s so inclusive and that’s what I love about it. All students have an opportunity.”

Miesha Kingcannon serves as ECSD’s Transition Specialist. She is excited for the new opportunities the program will provide to Edgefield County students.

“Our students will have the opportunity to continue their education and learn valuable skills that will allow them to be active in the community,” stated Kingcannon. “Regardless of disability they can also go to college and I love it.”

For Wilson, the program opens a door in the classroom to have new conversations with his students about what they want to pursue after they leave  Strom Thurmond High School.

“I really push them to strive for them to do the best they can and I want them to know with this anything is possible if they set their mind to it,” commented Wilson. “We’re going to start talking about it now because the deadline to apply for 2023 is December and it’s November so I hope they will choose USC Aiken and this program.”

Rashada James, a special needs parent who attended the meeting, says PacerLIFE can be a life-changing opportunity. 

“This means a lot to hear about a program like this because my son never thought he would be able to go to college,” stated James. “This would be big for him. I’m just going to encourage him because he can do it.” 

For more information on the new PacerLIFE program coming to USC Aiken in 2023, please contact USC Aiken PacerLIFE Program Director, Dr. Melissa Martin, by email at or office phone at (803) 648-3381. 

ECSD Public Information Office