Augustana University organization creates opportunities for students of all abilities

Published: Oct. 16, 2020 at 6:30 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The mission of FRIENDSLink is simple: make sure everyone has a friend.

“It was created to give students of differing abilities, that are graduating from high school and didn’t have a lot of opportunities, to meet new friends and be out in the community,” Julie Ashworth said. She is the agency director of FRIENDSLink on Augustana University’s campus.

The organization has been around for 10 years with 7,500 people now signed up for it and two seniors as co-directors for the program. Students volunteer to be part of the organization.

“I really have made new friends, which really wasn’t my intent at first. I thought it would be just a good thing to do,” Lucas Wienk said. Wienk is a senior at Augustana and the co-director of the organization.

There are people like Wienk in the program, who never really had any experience before with people with disabilities. But there are others like Cassie Blair, whose older brother has autism.

“My older brother doesn’t go out very often, and he doesn’t really have true friends and so coming to FRIENDSLink, he’s made those interactions, kind of made his own community,” Blair said.

She is the other co-director of the organization. Wienk and Blair plan activities every month for the group. The Sioux Empire United Way helps fund the events and promote the program.

“I have a son, who has autism and without this, his life would be really, really challenging,” Ashworth said. “It’s incredibly important for them to have a contributing, a rich life, where they feel active in the community.”

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