Submitted by Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council
On the last day of the Uplift training at the Arc of Grays Harbor, Americorps volunteers asked the class a seemingly simple question: “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
Many of us could answer with relative ease, but for students with special needs, getting to the point where they could reply with clarity and confidence took five days of hard work. They’d spent hours learning about how to be prepared for the workforce, do interviews, set goals, get along with co-workers, and prepare a resume.
By Friday, their efforts had paid off. One by one, each student responded, using all the tools they’d gained during the week. “They answered that so beautifully,” says Americorps volunteer Tyler Zinck. “I almost cried. They hit it on the head.”
The Uplift training is part of the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council’s Summer Youth Internship Program which connects special needs students with local businesses through internships. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) provides funding for the program, and Arc of Grays Harbor and Morningside Services recruit and manage the students. To qualify, participants must have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 Education Plan. Now in its second year, the Summer Youth Internship Program will serve 25 participants in Lewis and Thurston Counties and 12 in Grays Harbor County.
The program fills a critical gap, says Nikki Wegner, Morningside Vice President and COO. “One-third of students on IEPs don’t have a job a year after they graduate and aren’t engaged in post-secondary education. There are no services outside of school available to them. Programs like this are so desperately needed for kids of this age with disabilities.”
Research show that having opportunities to explore the workforce while they’re still in school makes it almost twice as likely that students will get jobs once they graduate, says Lori Magnuson, DVR’s Secondary School Transition Manager. “From a vocational rehab standpoint, it’s much easier to have success with people who are in school and developing good work habits rather than having to go through years of struggle.”
Each participant gets a $605 stipend at the end of 55 hours of work and the five days of training. PacMtn also assists with costs like transportation and appropriate clothes for the workplace. “Handing the kids their first paycheck was the highlight of my professional life,” says Arc of Grays Harbor Executive Director Jeff Meeks.
Based on the Workplace Excellence series, the Uplift curriculum goes beyond traditional workplace trainings. “It’s a different kind of workshop,” says Stacey Anderson, Program Manager for Youth and Specialized Populations at PacMtn. “It’s got a lot of games, activities, and teambuilding incorporated in it. There’s a lot of emphasis on goal setting, career planning and things like how to be respectful of diversity and generational differences as well as some of the basics like showing up on time and being dependable.”
Students emerge from the training transformed, says Wegner. “They come to us as high school students and I see them leave as job seekers. Most of them have never worked before. By the time they’re done they have a resume, soft skills around the type of language you use at work, and an idea of the type of job they’d like to try when they leave high school. All of that, and they have an internship under their belt. It’s impressive.”
Aside from practical experience, students also gain confidence and perspective. Meeks calls the Uplift curriculum ‘transformative.’ “It takes a lot of commitment and they leave with a real sense of accomplishment, feeling ready for their workplace,” he says. “Parents who didn’t think work was going to be a successful environment for their child are feeling a lot more optimistic.” Meeks’ son Colin participated in the program last year, and has since graduated and enrolled in Grays Harbor College. “He loved his work experience,” says Meeks. “He hasn’t spent the money he earned yet.”
Depending on their level of disability, participants may have job coaches that accompany them to the job site. Some businesses are hesitant to take on the interns but they’re always thankful that they did, says Wegner. “ It’s a different way to give back to the community. Our interns are coming in to learn about the business and see what kinds of tasks are involved, with the help of co-workers and Morningside staff who are on site the whole time.”
Magnuson hopes the program will grow. “From a big picture perspective, it’s exciting for families to have these specialized experiences,” she says. “Employers really step up when they see that these are students who are looking to learn. I’d like to see this program continue to expand.”
Already, some of the students who participated last year have gone on to secure their first jobs. “We have one student who just graduated and went right into it,” says Wegner. “He’s working 20 hours a week.” In Grays Harbor, another student got a job that his transition teacher in the Montesano School District helped to arrange. “It’s a big net positive for the students,” says Meeks.
Magnuson believes that PacMtn is the perfect fit to administer the program. “Students with disabilities have been overlooked for so long,” she says. “The programs that workforce development councils around the state have been doing are fantastic models. We wanted to copy the success they’ve had.”