By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
Eight Wayne High School students with special needs recently wrapped up an 18-week program aimed at preparing them for the workforce.
Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana, Fort Wayne Community Schools and Ivy Tech Community College Northeast partnered to provide pre-employment transitional services to the students through a contract with Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
According to Ann Barnes-Smith, client educator and career developer for Easterseals Arc, the program is aimed at preparing students for employment in the community rather than in sheltered workshops, a supervised workplace for physically disabled or mentally handicapped adults.
This reflects a shift in what young people with disabilities and their families expect, said Janet Schutte, a spokesperson for Easterseals Arc.
“This generation expects to work and be a part of the community after they leave high school,” she said. “They don’t want to be segregated or going to a day program and doing nothing. They expect to be active and involved in the community in all ways including employment so programs like this just make that more possible.”
Ashley Causey, an 11th grader participating in the program, said she hopes the training will put her on the right track to achieve her goals.
“It can help me get farther in life,” she said.
For her, that means landing a job in nursing or childcare.
“I like little kids, and I like helping people,” she said.
Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services issued the program funding to Easterseals Arc last July. It’s one of nine areas to receive the funding.
The program prepares students to learn and enhance their skills in five areas: job-exploration counseling, post-secondary education, self-advocacy, work-based learning experiences and workplace-readiness training.
The students gained work experience in four areas at Ivy Tech Northeast: administrative services, catering/culinary, grounds keeping and janitorial/housekeeping. The students spent two weeks on each rotation, spending two days each week on classroom learning and two days each week on training.
During the administrative services rotation, students worked in the mailroom shipping, receiving and sorting mail as well as doing print jobs for teachers.
Students worked outside, painted and learned the proper way to clean classrooms and restrooms on campus during the grounds keeping and housekeeping rotations.
During the culinary rotations, students learned about food preparation, sanitation and proper food storage. They earned a food handler certification during their training experience. This certification gives them an edge when applying for jobs, said Kassandra Flanagan, program manager for workforce alignment at Ivy Tech.
“This certificate is a step up from someone else off the street coming and applying for a job in the restaurant industry,” she said.
The students also earned a stipend for their participation in the program.
On Fridays, the students focused on self-advocacy and post-secondary education by visiting local colleges, hosting guest speakers and taking employment-related field trips.
The program has been a great opportunity for students to get experience and explore their likes and dislikes, Barnes-Smith said. In addition, it’s a chance to interact with people and build confidence.
“When each of them leaves, they’ll have a resume and portfolio to take with them to find a job,” she said.
Schutte said that when it comes to hiring individuals with disabilities, employers don’t know what to expect and typically, their expectations are lower than what reality is. These employees may need a little extra help, but they usually exceed expectations, she said.
Flanagan said employers often overlook the strengths of this workforce, calling it an untapped market.
“This is a viable employee. This is a demographic that has not been touched on,” she said. “They are probably more dedicated going to their jobs, not calling in sick. They’re more aware of their surroundings so they’re safer in their jobs.”