How do you make the best of a bad situation? One answer is you adapt creatively. In the last ten months, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Customized Employment (CE) team made lemonade out of a sackful of lemons. The sweet success of the team’s Virtual Employment Supports program, launched in response to the upending coronavirus pandemic, has given men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Maryland and Pennsylvania the opportunity to gather online to explore their career and employment interests, while engaging with their peers in a fun and highly interactive and informative way.
“We didn’t consider how successful or popular our virtual employment supports would become when we began developing them back in March,” said Holly Augustine, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Employment Manager. “We needed to act quickly to ensure our folks didn’t skip a beat in their employment exploration and discovery process.”
Thanks to funding through the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration’s appendix K, as well as from the Maryland Department of Rehabilitation Services, who recognized the value of online employment supports in the face of a massive health crisis, and a Disconnected Youth Grant, the CE team was able to develop four group sessions led by team members and held multiple times a week through Zoom, the video conferencing platform. The sessions created were Employment During COVID-19, Discovering Your Personal Genius, Game Show: Career Edition, and Career of the Week.
Participants in the virtual employment groups are made up of individuals who were either taking part in Penn-Mar’s Carroll and York County Day Programs, which were shuttered due to the pandemic, or individuals accessing the nonprofit’s CE services. A number of the participants have been holding down jobs during COVID, but most are actively exploring employment opportunities and their goals through the groups. Wherever they are on their employment journey, the groups have been designed to help build their skills, explore their talents, discover businesses and opportunities in the community, and build confidence.
Penn-Mar Westminster Program Service Manager Kris Froehlich, who began her career with Change, Inc in 1988 (Change joined the Penn-Mar family in 2019), has been leading two groups of Employment During COVID-19 since November. She said it was a minor struggle to adapt to the new technology at the beginning, as it was for everyone, but progress has been swift, and she marvels at how responsive her groups have been in adjusting to the “new normal.”
“The virtual supports have been valuable to those we support,” said Kris. “What we’re seeing is a change in attitudes about employment and the possibilities of working in the community, especially during this stressful and uncertain time, which won’t last forever.
“The great benefit to those who are not currently working is having the ability to engage virtually with others who are working. They coach each other on things like, how to find a good job or how to handle situations while at work. They help build confidence in one another, and are now saying, ‘we can do it.’”
Kris also noted a mind shift in how local businesses and employers positively view hiring people with disabilities, a shift that has been ongoing for more than a decade through the efforts of Penn-Mar’s Customized Employment program and business outreach. One of the major benefits of taking the Exploration and Discovery process online during the pandemic has been the ease and convenience of connecting with businesses and professionals in various fields, who have been invited to lead the sessions and provide insights into real-world career experiences and opportunities.
Nicole Swartz, Penn-Mar Westminster’s Program Instructor, who co-developed and leads Discovering Your Personal Genius, the virtual group that explores different hobbies and interests, conditions for success, and where they find themselves most satisfied in life, regularly invites professionals to join her groups. She conducts interactive, hands-on discovery activities, which as Holly pointed out have generated a lot of positive outcomes that the CE team can use in the future to help people towards job matches. The goal of these activities is to connect these discoveries to employment and a more meaningful schedule.
“It’s been really encouraging to see the progress the groups have made over the course of the year,” said Nicole. “The virtual supports are giving the participants tools to foster self-advocacy and drive their confidence. We’re really seeing that, and so are the parents, who have been very supportive throughout.”
Holly is thrilled with how the Virtual Employment Supports have taken off, and hopes to continue providing them post-Covid, as part of Penn-Mar’s overall home and community-based supports, with the help of several grants that they are looking to apply for in the coming months.
“The sky’s the limit with what we can do with the tools we’ve adopted, and the passion and dedication our team brings to the table every day.” said Kris.