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CLE goes to Japan

An Example of Interest-Based Learning for both Staff and Students

by Scott Allen, Psy.D.

Scott, Mary and Jake - CLE Trip to JapanThe three of us, Jake, Mary and myself, planned what we considered to be the PERFECT trip. We were going to Tokyo, one of the most amazing and populous cities of the world. We had our days planned to the hour, anticipating a great balance of culture, socialization, and fun. We would dine at some of the greatest restaurants that Tokyo had to offer, we would see all of the sights of that wonderful city, and we would simply be able to adjust to a culture that is so different from our own. We all had different backgrounds going into the experience. Jake had lived in Japan for over 10 years and had a solid understanding of the language and the culture. Mary tutored some of our students in Japanese and had a good basic sense of the language. I came with very little experience with the Japanese language beyond Street Fighter moves, sushi names, and 80’s one-hit wonders. However, I had a willingness to learn and model flexibility that helped me work as a team member during our trip.

As a CLE staff member, nothing drives me more than witnessing student success and knowing that I had a small part to play in it. Of course, there was stress for me in the planning and anticipation for the trip. Nonetheless, this stress was offset by the excitement of working with the students and getting to know and understand a new culture.

Airport - traveling to JapanAfter a very early wakeup and two flights, I arrived to Denver at around 10:00am. There, I was able to meet a group of eleven students that would change my life forever. The students were from all six of CLE’s centers and they tended to sit alone or with students from their respective centers. Chris was the first student I met; he was notably “laid back” and his anticipation of the trip was tempered by a tangible sense of calm. Eric T. was another student who stood out to me because he quickly shared with me about his excitement in exploring the land of Godzilla and Ultraman; the spirit of his communication led for me to share in his excitement. Emily, our only female student of the group, was very interested to know about me and was also genuinely apologetic about the number of questions that she asked.

After a 12-hour plane ride we were there. When we arrived, it was around 3:30pm the next day. We were exhausted and culture shock was beginning to set in. First, we went through customs and immigration. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the students were able to get through this segment of the trip. With bags in tow, we embarked on our first of many train rides during our journey. I am familiar with public transportation; I have been to New York City many times and also to Paris. I had subway planning down to a science. I also came prepared with subway maps and guidebooks. Let me tell you, nothing can prepare you for your first experience on Tokyo’s public transportation system. There are not just multiple lines, there are multiple train companies. Each has its own stations and frameworks. Thank goodness we had Jake. With assistance from many of the personnel in the airport, Jake was able to plan Architecture in Japana trip for us to get from the airport to our hotel. The initial train ride from Narita (the location of the airport) to Tokyo was an amazing experience. Students smiled when they viewed the architecture and nature of Japan outside of the train’s windows. It was finally evident to all of us that we were there.

We arrived at the train station where we had to make a transfer. We all hopped out of the train and performed a head count of all of the students. In the process we notice that one of the students boarded another train on an adjacent track. We yell his name and he gets off of the train just before the doors close. Whew! At this point, my eyes open to what travel will be like with a group of students with disabilities. Safety and staying with the group are not necessarily “common sense” notions for all of the members of the group. At this point, we take a break and we give very clear, black-and-white instructions that the staff are the leaders and that no one is to separate from the group without explicit permission. After this “hiccup,” we all board the second train that will eventually take us to the area of our hotel. Along with the students and staff, I step out of the subway station and I am simply amazed at how huge everything is around me. There are buildings as far as the eye can see. As we all leave the station, one thing was abundantly clear, we had no idea where we were in comparison to the hotel. Jake asked a local for help, and we quickly arrived at our hotel.


By Tokyo standards, our hotel was fairly nice. Two words that I would use to describe our hotel rooms are cozy and efficient. Although the rooms were small, everything in the room had a purpose and the rooms were quiet and comfortable. I also couldn’t help but take notice of the two origami swans on my bed. For anyone going to Japan, I think the bathroom could best be described as technologically efficient. The toilet literally had 20 buttons on it not counting the handle to flush. The sink and shower could not run at the same time; there was a knob to change “modes.” This was very different from what I experienced in the States, but the efficiency of everything was also something I would grow to appreciate as our time in Tokyo continued.

CLE in Japan - eating ramen noodlesStaff and students took approximately 30 minutes to shower, clean, and dress ourselves before heading toward the Tokyo Skytree. This tower is the second tallest man-made structure in the world and the tallest in Japan. Spirits were up, but we were also hungry; what better way to celebrate our first night in Japan than a bowl of ramen? Steven literally ate his ramen like an anime character… he got a good laugh out of a comment I made to that effect. We enjoyed our ramen and then went outside of the Skytree to take pictures for a while. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day for us to go to the top of the Skytree, but we vowed that we would come back later. We did take some pretty terrific pictures!

The next day, we had our first experience with a Japanese breakfast. Where were the bacon and eggs? The breakfast buffet (which was consistent from day to day) had many Japanese treats, such as rice, miso soup, fish, and an interesting baked egg dish. Then we went to a 7 Eleven across the street to load up on snacks and drinks. We would be walking several miles each day and we needed to stay hydrated and energized. We decided to go to the Shinjuku Botanical Gardens, one of our most beautiful destinations for the trip. Upon our arrival, we discovered that the gardens were closed… and it was off to Plan B. One of the most beautiful experiences of the trip was seeing how everyone adapted to the trip as a whole. Nobody complained, bellyached, or grumbled… we simply went with the flow.

ArcadeCLE - arcade in Japan

In Shinjuku, we were able to go to our first Japanese arcade. I LOVE arcades; however, my concept of an arcade was totally transformed that day. This arcade was a 6-story monster complete with a different type of game on each floor. Locals were serious about their arcades; people young and old were there to play the many assorted games. My favorites were the music games and I had a blast playing them with some of our students. Some of the other students played some first-person shooters, which in the States are generally restricted to console gaming. I cannot stress enough how amazing the arcades are in Japan.

We decided that it would be a good day to visit Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine since we knew that these locations would be open. In order to get there, we would need to take a train from Shinjuku Station, literally the busiest train station in the entire world. We stopped every couple of minutes to perform head counts. Luckily, we all made it onto the train for our next destination.

ShoppingCLE shopping in Japan

Once in Harajuku, Jake showed us around Tokyo Hands, a 6-story discount store with pretty much any Japanese souvenir we could ever want. I bought several items for my friends and colleagues and some our students went to try on yukata, an informal version of the kimono.

We grabbed a quick bite at a nearby mall… this was the first point when I discovered that some of our students were what we would classify as picky eaters. It was clear that we would not be able to eat at one restaurant to everyone’s satisfaction. We divided into groups… one went to eat Japanese cuisine while the other went to a burger joint. I ate with the burger group, and I had no regrets… my burger was amazing. Ironically, it seemed that traditionally American food was even better in Japan. The students were also quite happy about their food selections.

Following lunch, we walked to the Meiji Shrine area; words cannot capture this experience! The grounds of the shrine were incredibly beautiful; the area was almost hauntingly quiet, especially when you factor in that the shrine is in one of the busiest cities of the world. Visiting this area was like taking a step back in history and seeing a world as it was centuries before. I was fascinated by the respect and reverence that the students showed toward the shrine and the practices in the shrine. I found the experience incredibly humbling and peaceful.

CLE Studentts at Meiji ShrineWe had an incredibly busy and eventful day. It was getting fairly late, so we decided to go to the hotel to rest. Some of the students could not wait until they returned to the hotel to rest.

The next day, we went to Odaiba Island, which is like a playground for college students and adults. We took our journey on a Hotaluna, which is a futuristic tour boat. The Hotaluna appeared as though it came straight out of Star Trek.

This journey was definitely a highlight or our trip. We were able to get a break from the heat and enjoy some gelato while we rode to the island. We also took tons of photos on the top deck of the boat.

Statue of Liberty in JapanWhen we arrived at Odaiba Island, one of the first things we noticed was a beach. I’d read about this beach… it is the only one in Tokyo. Although it looks like a beach, no one is supposed to swim there. We walked past a sign that said beware of mosquitos. Jake warned the group that Tokyo mosquitos are not the same as American mosquitos; you will definitely notice if they bite. Our next big stop was the Miraikan Museum; however, on the way we ran into a very American landmark.

After a long hike to the museum, we were happy to see that the Miraikan had a Pokemon exhibit. This exhibit actually exceeded every expectation we could have possibly had. As we walked into the museum, we were each given a Pokeball. Our mission was to identify which Pokemon was in our Pokeballs. The exhibit was divided into several stations that permitted us to learn about various aspects of our Pokemon. We were then able to put together the clues to identify the Pokemon that we had.

All of us were successful on our mission (of course)! Our other highlight on the island was a ride on the Odaiba Ferris Wheel, which is the tallest in Japan. I rode with JC, Ethan, and Odaiba Ferris Wheel - JapanAren and we talked about life, friends, and relationships since we were just starting to get to know each other. This was one of the most relaxing and entertaining parts of the trip.

We ended up taking a train back to our hotel and turning in for the night because we were waking early for our trip to Mt. Fuji the next day. What a fantastic day!

The next morning, we work up extra early for our trip to Mt. Fuji. We were meeting up with a tour group at a bus station in the center of Tokyo. We took the subway there, which is always somewhat tricky because we never knew exactly where we would pop out once we got off of the train. Time limits in Tokyo are always a little scary because the train systems are so confusing. With a little help from Jake and others through Jake’s language skills, we were able to get to the bus station. Unfortunately, we needed to split into two groups; however, both groups were able to have a different but equally amazing experience.

Mt. Fuji

After a short bus ride out of Tokyo, we were out in the countryside. It is amazing to see how lush Japan is and the different styles of architecture. It was absolutely beautiful, especially when we went into the mountains surrounding Mt. Fuji. We stopped at a visitor center where we were able to buy a few gifts and learn about the formation of Mt. Fuji and the folklore around the mountain.

Unfortunately, although we were on Mt. Fuji, we were unable to get a clear view of the summit. It was somewhat cloudy and summer views are very hit or miss. However, the experience was wonderful nonetheless. We went with a touring company, and our tour guide spoke great English and she was very welcoming and accommodating. At one point, one of our students left his camera behind at a gift shop. The driver of our bus actually went out of the way to take us back to the gift shop and pick up the camera. This out-of-the-way journey was another example of how a last-minute change affected the trajectory of our trip. Because we were running late to some of the subsequent parts of the trip, we participated in a boat cruise and a cable car ride at an alternate but equally awesome location than originally planned. We also had an insanely large lunch where some of our students were even able get their beloved French Fries.

The pics by the Naughty Boy truck were some of my favorites on the trip because we were truly lighthearted and were completely ourselves. The day did not come without its incidents, including a lost camera and a stray bee on the bus; however, they gave me the opportunity to see how the students dealt with their problems and also gave me the opportunity to help. We returned to Tokyo via bullet train, which was definitely a highlight of our trip.

On Day 5, we decided to go to the Imperial Palace, home of the imperial family of Japan. On the way, we decided to make a spontaneous stop near the Bandai (a notable animation/video game publisher) Museum. We were not allowed to take any pictures inside; however, Eric was able to take a picture near his hero, Ultraman. I was able to take a picture near the quintessential video game character of my generation, Pac Man!

After touring the museum, we arrived at the palace area. Although we weren’t allowed into the palace itself, we were able to tour the grounds. One of our first stops on the grounds was a scroll museum, which captured pictures of Japanese historical figures in battle and in everyday life. After leaving the museum, we took a quick break outside and we overheard an imperial family member or friend practicing martial arts in a nearby dojo, another cool reminder of the differences of our cultures. The Imperial Gardens were gorgeous, with tons of sculpted trees, beautiful flowers, and majestic koi ponds.

After going to the Imperial Palace, I informed the group that we were going to a statue of one of Eric T.’s favorite characters… a certain giant lizard from Japanese lore. However, we decided to make a “pit stop” at a nearby Italian restaurant beforehand. Everyone was able to find something desirable on the menu; everyone at my table loved the tiramisu. Finally, we reached the statue… although, he wasn’t life-sized, he was pretty amazing.

Following our visit with the Godzilla statue, we went to the Shibuya area of Tokyo to visit a second and even more famous statue. I was eagerly awaiting my visit to this statue, the Hachiko statue. This statue is of an akita dog who demonstrated great loyalty toward his owner and continuously waited for him at a train station after his owner’s death. The American movie, Hachi, is based on this story. As a dog owner, this story and this statue has huge sentimental value and meaning for me.

This statue overlooks Shibuya crossing (or the Shibuya scramble). This is the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Every few minutes, all of the traffic lights changed to red and pedestrians scramble in all directions. We told all of our students to meet us at a location across the scramble in order to allow them to experience the mad rush firsthand.

At this point in the trip, we decided to check out the laundry facilities in our hotel since we had packed for six days and we had tons of stinky clothes. We discovered that our hotel only had one washer/dryer and that it was going to be extremely impractical for all of us to use it. This was another occasion requiring us to put on our thinking caps and come up with a Plan B. This time, the Plan B was for all of us to go to H&M, a discount European clothing store, and shop for new clothing on a limited budget. This was a great opportunity, because it allowed the staff to work with the students on budgeting in order to maximize the clothing to be purchased for the remainder of the trip. The students did an amazing job in this task, buying tons of tee shirts and pairs of shorts.

That evening, we decided that we were going to take the group to Ninja Akasaka, a restaurant with a ninja theme. We showered and dressed for the occasion; however, when we arrived we discovered that we needed to have a reservation in order to be accommodated. We were disappointed, but only briefly since we were able to set a reservation for two days later. Our Plan B in this situation was a nearby karaoke parlor, Karaoke Kan. This company was featured in the Bill Murray movie, Lost in Translation and is one of the largest in Tokyo.
We had an absolute blast in karaoke. I had several favorites including listening to Steven and Eric R. sing the song Beat It, Eric T. sing an Ultraman song, and Ethan sing a multitude of Beatles songs. Ranking up in my top CLE moments ever was me having the opportunity to sing the song Somewhere Only We Know by Keane with our student, JC. Karaoke night was a WIN and we knew that we were going to need to repeat the experience before leaving Tokyo.

Our first destination on Day 6 is also a famous landmark from Godzilla fandom, the Tokyo Tower. This tower was built in the 1950’s and features some of the best views of the city. Luckily for us, the tower also featured an amusement park based on the animated show, One Piece, which was of interest to many of our students. At Tokyo Tower, we not only had the chance to experience the views of the city but we also were able to enjoy the exhibits and games that were part of the One Piece amusement park.

Following our visit to the Tokyo Tower, we decided to make our way to Roppongi, a cosmopolitan district of Tokyo that is home to many expatriates. We were determined to get a taste of America while we were there, so we ate as a group at the Hard Rock Café-Tokyo. This Hard Rock Café had a unique burger made out of Wagyu beef; it was delicious! Everybody bought a shirt or hat as a memento of this part of the trip. We also took a couple of pictures with their staff and memorabilia.

Around this part of the trip, I noticed that one of our students was talking quite a bit more with peers and with the staff on the trip. During our train ride back to the hotel area, Adam was asking quite thoughtful questions to Jake and to the other students on the train. It made me wonder if he had been taking the time to get to know the other students and staff on the trip prior to asking the questions, which required quite a bit of thought. Nonetheless, Adam definitely showed a major positive shift in his interactions at this point in the trip.

Our final destination for the day was Akihabara, a district of Tokyo known for its electronics, Maid Cafes (a truly Japanese phenomenon), and pop culture. Our aim here was to find a shop selling items from Ultraman and from other Japanese franchises. We literally hit the jackpot here as we were able to satisfy all of our students’ shopping wishes in this venue. One of my favorite moments on the trip was when Eric T. bought an Ultraman figure for Steven as a birthday gift. Given that all of our students were on a limited traveling budget, I was so happy to see the compassion and the budding friendship between the two students.

On Day 7, we were finally able to get back to the Shinjuku Botanical Gardens, and boy was it a scorcher! We spent almost two hours in this beautiful park enjoying the scenery and taking pictures. As in other occasions in the trip, it seemed as though we had left the big city even though we were still in the heart of it.

This day was definitely our day of making up for missed experiences, as we also returned to the Tokyo Skytree. We took elevators all the way to the top of the Skytree, and the views were absolutely stupendous. Skyscrapers looked like Lego houses from this vantage point. I love to take silly pictures wherever I go, and one great experience was taking silly pictures in the Skytree. These are some of my favorites.

Our final make-up event was a return to Ninja Akasaka. This was one of the most amazing restaurant experiences of my life. We started by going through a ninja maze, and we were subsequently escorted to our tables. Our meal consisted of 10 courses and every food had a unique spin to it. Our food was served by a ninja; he chopped up our salad like a boss! My personal favorites were the throwing star crackers with the throwing star pate and the frog-shaped gelato. After the meal, we were treated to a ninja-themed magic show.

On Day 8, I was starting to feel pretty tired from all of our activities; thank goodness the group had enough excitement to keep me going! We started our day in the Ueno district, which is known for its park and zoo. Prior to entering the zoo, we went to a shrine; JC and I took the opportunity to write out a prayer.

It was definitely another very hot day. However, the group had a blast at the zoo and we were able to see some animals that none of us had ever seen before. My personal favorites were the bush babies!

After our visit to Ueno, we decided to tour the area near our hotel. We went out to lunch and then toured the Senso-Ji Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple and a hotspot for our Tokyo visit. I was again awestruck and humbled by the experience of visiting this place that was so far out of the world that I know. Some of us took the opportunity to pray at the temple and then we made a return trip to Karaoke Kan!

Just as the first time, our Japanese karaoke experience was phenomenal. Some of our students performed their favorite songs again. However, Steven and Eric T. took the night with a song from Ultraman. Prior to singing, the two of them rehearsed a routine in the hallway, and they performed in tandem for the “real thing.” It was amazing to see both of them sing the song in Japanese.

During our final full day of the trip, we revisited some of our favorite locations. We went to Harajuku again to do some shopping. Each of the students bought a funny tee shirt from a street vendor, and he kindly gave us 5 tee shirts for free. This was one of my favorite moments of the trip because it truly demonstrated how welcoming and accommodating the culture had been in Japan. I was also able to take what I feel is my favorite group picture of the trip!

We then took the train back to Shibuya in order to go back to an arcade there and to do some shopping. Since this was one of the busiest areas of town, it was also awesome to see how much the students had learned during the trip. During our first couple of days in Japan, staff members were worried about losing students in the chaos of a Japanese train station. By now, we had the train system down to a science; students were leading the way to the tracks and telling the group when it was time to get off of the train. Not one student lost their train card during our entire time in Japan! The growth in personal responsibility was not only tangible, it was striking.

For dinner that evening, we went to a place called The Lock Up. This is a prison-themed restaurant that we had researched before we left the States and where several of the students wanted to go. We were able to set up a dinner reservation, and we prepared the students for the experience earlier in the trip. None of us were prepared for the reality of eating in the restaurant. We go through a haunted-house like maze to get into the restaurant itself. We were escorted to our “cell,” which was an area consisting of two large tables. All of us then looked at the menu and at approximately 10 minutes into our time at the restaurant, the lights go out. All of the sudden, some heavy metal music starts playing, strobe lights come on, and scary looking characters come in the room trying to terrify us. This was a “jail break.” A couple of the students could not handle the experience and needed to step out of the restaurant. We’d prepared them by telling them that there would be some horror elements, but it was just too loud. However, they were willing to wait at a nearby gift shop and eat at McDonalds afterwards. The rest of us had one of our favorite meals of the trip. After dinner, we rode back to the hotel in order to pack our items and prepare to leave the next day.

On our last day, we had a breakfast at Denny’s, which itself had a cool Japanese menu in order for us to enjoy our last group meal together. We then picked up our items at the hotel and made our way to the airport. We took a very nice train to the airport, but oops, we debarked the train at the wrong airport terminal. No problem! We simply picked up our bags and boarded a bus to get to the correct destination. After eating in the airport, we began our long journey back to the United States.

My return to Denver was very much a good representation of the trip as a whole. I was supposed to be the first person to leave the Denver airport. However, it took longer to get through customs and security than was originally the plan. I missed my flight. As was the case on many other occasions on the trip, my Plan B presented itself with opportunity. Because I missed my flight, I was able to help the students make it to their gates and I was able to say a proper goodbye to this wonderful group of students. It was neat to see how different they were in the airport this time than when I initially met them in Denver the first time. They all appeared more confident, they talked to each other, and some were even exchanging phone numbers.

When I look back on the CLE trip to Japan, I am thankful at how much I learned about the students, other staff, and myself during the journey. I discovered that our students can learn so quickly under the right circumstances and with the right supports. Nothing could be a better representation of this than our mastery over the transportation systems in Japan. After the first day, we never had a student get on the wrong train or even separate from the group in a train station. Jake also masterfully encouraged the students to take leadership roles in the transportation process, leading to a huge surge in confidence and competence in those students.

I also learned about my patience and tolerance. When I was exhausted or frustrated, I learned to ask my colleagues and even the students at times for help. I also learned that a “be of service” attitude and a little bit of adrenaline can help to overcome mental and physical exhaustion.

I would describe our trip as a whole as perfectly imperfect. Whether it was showing up to a restaurant without a reservation, a student leaving the group to be found later, or an inconvenient change of schedule, all of these experiences led to growth in everyone involved and to Plan B’s that were as good or better than our Plan A’s. Everyone’s flexibility was tested, yet we heard few complaints and the students were able to deal with change in stride.

Japan was an incredibly safe and welcoming location for this CLE trip. For a culture where low vocal volume, respect toward boundaries, and appreciation of personal space are the norm, it was amazing how warm everyone was toward a group of Americans who struggle with these issues. Locals were always quick and willing to help; we even had a woman walk us to a restaurant when we could not find it. The hotel staff and the tour company for Mt. Fuji were absolutely fantastic, and they exhibited a degree of professionalism that can be difficult to find in the States.

My primary goal in the work I do is to teach skills utilizing interest-based strategies. During my short time on this trip I observed the following.

Danny: Learned other students’ names on the trip and learned how to appreciate the personal boundaries of others.
Riley: Went from standing away from the pack to forming a true friendship with another member of the group.
Chris: Went from primarily interacting with staff to emerging as a true leader for the other students.
Emily: Learned to take notice of the positives of situations and to be more positive about herself.
Steven: Learned to control his strong reactions to situations and to be cognizant of his facial expressions.
Eric R.: Learned that he too can be a quiet leader (quiet except when it comes to karaoke).
Ethan: Learned that other students share his opinions on relationships and how to filter his speech from person to person.
JC: Learned how to cope with adversity and to assess the size of and react appropriately to his problems.
Adam: Demonstrated some emerging conversational skills; I learned that Adam was a silent listener and was learning about everyone as we continued on the trip.
Eric T.: Learned to set aside his wants for the benefit of the group and learned great flexibility in terms of his interests and diet.
Aren: Demonstrated a great deal of patience and understanding toward the other students.

The staff also demonstrated great growth in our teamwork and our roles differentiated as the trip continued. We lifted each other up when we struggled and we worked to compliment each other’s strengths and struggles. All in all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience and I am very appreciative to have been a part of it!

Newsletter Articles – May 2016

CLE trip to Japan

Last summer, I had the privilege of taking part in CLE’s annual trip abroad. Although I learned much about Japan and its culture, this trip helped to solidify many good lessons for me in my everyday life. Traveling with a group of students with disabilities can have its unique challenges; however, with every challenge I had the opportunity to grow and learn about myself as well as the people who traveled with me. Below are what I considered to be the 5 most important lessons that I learned as a result from the trip. Although these lessons apply directly to traveling overseas with groups of students, they also apply in their own ways to “real life” back home.

Traveling with CLE Students

At CLE-Rockville, many of our students are very well traveled, in the U.S. and internationally. (A recent outing to a restaurant featured a table of students all swapping stories of different trips to London … they hadn’t known they all had it in common!) For this month’s travel issue, we interviewed a few students about their favorite trip, and asked for their advice to others setting out on travels.

Travels to Japan

Riley Smith is a student at the Costa Mesa center who traveled with CLE to Japan in summer of 2015. He was interviewed about his experience.

Traveling luggage

by Terri Shermett, Program Director, CLE Davie


At College Living Experience in Fort Lauderdale, we have many students that travel to visit family during their school breaks, or to go on vacations with their loved ones. The instructors of our Independent Living…

This year, CLE students will be traveling across the pond to Great Britain. From July 23rd to August 2nd, students will be exploring England, Edinburgh, Wales and the beautiful landscapes in between.

While students immerse themselves in a new culture and explore a new environment they will have the opportunity to continue to practice their skills sets from budgeting, navigating, developing friendships, and time management.

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This has been a special needs program update from College Living Experience | CLE | Choose Your Future. You may also click here to read the original article on the main program website.