There is probably not a more critical and often more challenging time in a young person’s life than when he or she is transitioning into adulthood – moving from the comfort and security of home and school to concerns of higher education, careers, financial stability, housing, healthcare and independence. This is especially true for students and youth with disabilities, for whom the changes and challenges of transitioning into the adult world can be more profound.
Since 2004, when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated transition planning for all students with IEPs (Individualized Education Program), there has been a mounting effort to improve support for young people with disabilities moving from school into adulthood. Coordinating this support is a wide range of agencies, including health and human services, youth services, leisure, careers guidance, residential, education and employment services.
New Youth Transition Program
Penn-Mar’s Community Employment (CE) program, established 2010, is regionally recognized for its innovative and collaborative approach to placing adult men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities in community-based jobs.
Two years ago, while recognizing the need to support an increasing number of young people with disabilities and their families in transition planning from school to work, Penn-Mar expanded its CE program to include students in York County aging out of the education system. In the past year alone, with the generous support of the $250,000 challenge grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Penn-Mar has been working with ten young people in finding meaningful competitive work in the community, and successfully placing six of them in jobs.
“Traditionally, during the transition years, young people gain knowledge and skills to be able to maximize their independence and self-sufficiency in their communities,” says Tricia Zeltwanger, Penn-Mar Career Counselor. “For the young people we work with, the transition process from school to work begins in the last year of their education through an exploration and discovery process.”
Collaboration, Exploration and Discovery
In collaboration with the Lincoln Intermediate Unit in York County, a program that supports special education inside some school systems, as well as Project SEARCH, which serves students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, young people with disabilities who want to work in the community are identified. Penn-Mar then steps in and begins the process of exploration, discovery and job development with the students and their parents, which takes approximately six to eight weeks.
“During our initial meeting we explain the process and begin a home observation,” says Tricia. “We learn how the students live at home and what their likes are. We begin to identify their great skills and talents, the kind of work they want to do, and what their conditions of employment are. We learn everything we can to be able to successfully match them with a competitive job and the needs of an employer.”
Once areas and themes of employment are explored with the students, Tricia and three vocational teams research and identify businesses in the area to approach through cold calling. By establishing relationships and partnerships with businesses, Tricia and her team learn what their particular employment needs are and see if they match the students’ job skills and interests.
“Initially, if one of our students says, for example, that he or she would like to work in an office, we ask a business if they would allow us to come in to do some filing just to access the student’s skills,” says Tricia. “This enables a student to explore the job itself and determine if it’s right for them.”
For Tricia, who has been with Penn-Mar for 27 years, formerly as a contract manager securing work for Penn-Mar’s now shuttered Sheltered Workshop, the success of the Community Employment and the new Youth Transition programs lies in the collaborative relationships and partnerships that are forming every day with education providers, with families, and of course the young people and the employers they are now working for.
“This shift to community employment and inclusion has had a tremendously positive effect on our individuals in these few short years. We’re definitely not looking back as we help these young people transition forward to living and working in the community…and to enjoying life.”