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Gift from Massachusetts Family Will Support Students with Diverse Learning Challenges

Lesley University’s Threshold Program has received a philanthropic gift of $1 million from donors Chris Gaffney and Karen Kames, of Newton, Massachusetts, which will provide scholarships for students and fund a new staff member in the Threshold Alumni Center.

Their daughter, Olivia, is a second-year student in the Threshold Program, a certificate program designed to support students with diverse learning challenges.

Chris Gaffney and Karen Kames’s $1 million gift will provide scholarships and help expand alumni services for Lesley University’s Threshold Program.

Chris Gaffney and Karen Kames’s $1 million gift will provide scholarships and help
expand alumni services for Lesley University’s Threshold Program. Photo Credit: Lesley University

“A program like this can change someone’s life,” says Threshold Program Director Ernst VanBergeijk. “Each year, the demand for scholarships exceeds what we’re able to offer. With a gift like this, we’re able to increase our ability to reach students from different backgrounds and income levels and give them access to an education that will make it possible for them to be employed, to be independent.”

“I can’t overstate how impactful this gift is to our community,” says Cara Gorham Streit, Threshold’s associate director who manages the alumni program. “It’s going to make a life-changing experience possible for students from very low-income backgrounds. It will also fund continuing supports for those same students, and for hundreds of others, once they graduate and begin to navigate the world as independent adults.”

The Threshold Program at Lesley University


“This gift will directly lift, and keep, young people with disabilities out of poverty.”

Kames, who graduated from Lesley in 1983 with a master’s in education, knew that Threshold would be the right fit for her daughter as she charted her path towards adulthood.

“When we were looking at programs for Olivia, we looked at a number of schools but Lesley was the only one that offered the kind of 360-degree support that we were looking for,” Kames said.

Threshold students live in dormitories on campus, forming supportive connections with each other while learning a range of important life skills from handling their own finances to entering the work world. Students learn to manage everyday tasks like shopping, laundry and cooking and to develop social skills that help them form and maintain relationships with roommates, colleagues and friends.

Olivia Gaffney

Olivia Gaffney has learned valuable
life skills during her time
in the Threshold Program
and has two internships

For Olivia Gaffney (above), who attended Learning Prep School in Newton, being a part of the Threshold program has been life changing. Eager for independence but anxious about leaving her close-knit family in Newton, she overcame her initial homesickness and quickly grew to enjoy campus life and a circle of new friends. Over 18 months, she learned to live on her own, getting herself to classes, the dining hall and the gym and navigating Boston and Cambridge by public transportation. She holds two part-time internships at Lesley’s Office of Advancement and at the Boston Medical Center’s Autism Clinic.

“It was an amazing first year,” says Gaffney, her father. “For 21 years, she was never in the house alone—to go from that to living in a dorm full-time, independently…it’s a huge leap. She came home at the holidays and was a different person. And she continues to mature and to increase the aperture of her independence.”

Gaffney and Kames were also impressed by Threshold’s Alumni Center, which is designed to serve graduates throughout their lives, whether they need help finding a job or housing, navigating social issues at work or at home, or even planning for retirement.

“The really vibrant alumni presence and the way the center is set up to support them for the rest of their lives was very appealing to us,” says Kames.

“Chris and Karen’s magnificent gift relates directly to Lesley’s fundamental values by providing access to education for deserving students from diverse backgrounds and by serving the evolving needs of Threshold alumni,” said Tim Cross, Lesley’s vice president for institutional advancement.

Lesley University empowers students to become dynamic, thoughtful leaders in education, mental health counseling and the arts. Located in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lesley combines an intensely creative environment with the practical experience students need to succeed in their careers. Each year, more than 7,000 students pursue degrees on campus, regionally, online, and through our low-residency programs. Along with our 90,000 alumni, they are discovering the power of creativity to overcome obstacles, foster connections, and reveal fresh answers to the world’s problems. For more information, visit

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