IOWA Magazine | 03-04-2019

Hawkeyes Helping Hawkeyes

3 minute read
Iowa students create a nonprofit program to assist their peers with disabilities.
Group Photo PHOTO COURTESY STUDENTS CARE Students Care co-founders (from left) Peter Easler, Michael Penniman, and Jacob Newcomb. Click the image to enlarge.

The morning passed and Michael Penniman still lay in bed, unable to start his routine. The UI senior, who became quadriplegic in 2012 from a spinal cord injury while wrestling with friends, missed two classes that day last school year because his home care employee called in sick with no replacement available. Penniman's friend Jacob Newcomb assisted him to his final class of the day, but the oversight inspired Penniman to end his dependence on traditional home care once and for all.

Penniman had already begun relying more on Newcomb, Peter Easler, and a couple of their Phi Kappa Psi friends in fall 2016 when his traditional home care providers first started missing shifts. To prevent missing more classes and social opportunities, Penniman devised a plan with Easler and Newcomb to start a nonprofit organization where students would help other students with disabilities. By fall 2017, Easler and Newcomb assembled a care team for Penniman, who completed a one-day course on nonprofit setup. The trio added a second client and care team soon after, and Students Care was born.

As Penniman's care improved, so did his health, social life, and grades. "Michael was night and day," says Easler. "He seemed happy to have guys his age provide care that used to be provided by non-students. And they weren't just doing the job—they enjoyed hanging out with him."

Cheddar University shines the spotlight on Students Care

Penniman also realized his dream of becoming a Phi Kappa Psi member like his father, welcomed into the brotherhood long before he officially joined. For one fraternity event, Penniman's friends carried him in his manual wheelchair up a flight of stairs to the second floor of the Airliner restaurant so he could participate. Penniman aims for all Students Care clients to feel such integration into the college community. "When your cares are taken care of, you don't have to worry about your health," he says. "You don't even have to worry about your disability almost."

This semester, Students Care has started a UI student organization, expanded to Iowa State University, and grown to six clients and more than 30 caretakers. Still, the nonprofit carefully approaches expansion to maintain high-level care. Staff meet with each client to learn individual needs and assign a team of caretakers dedicated to each student that fosters friendships and prevents no-shows. New caretakers walk through their first shift with senior staff.

Students Care, which is registered with the UI John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center's Founders Club as a student business and housed at the UI Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory, has received university support through mentorship and business competition opportunities. The nonprofit has earned more than $10,000 in awards, accepts donations through its website (, and hired a fundraiser and grant writer to rely less on each client's Medicaid waiver funds.

The three co-founders are committed to helping others maximize their time in college through Students Care and building a sustainable organization that others can lead beyond their graduation in spring 2020. "Great college experiences come not just from the classes but from the students you meet and the friends you make," says Newcomb. "Students with disabilities have more barriers to get involved. We want to break down those barriers."

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