School-to-Work Program changes lives 

If you ask what students with developmental disabilities need in order to achieve employment before leaving high school, what you will hear most often is “high expectations” and “work experience.” Ask what it takes for a program to make this happen for students countywide, and what you will hear is “collaboration.”  But if you ask students what it takes, it might be about supporting them to reach for their dreams. Working with Washington State’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Developmental Disabilities Administration, school districts, consultants, employment service providers, businesses, families, and over 1,500 students over 14 years, collaboration and support is exactly what the King County School-to-Work Program is all about.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of collaboration and supporting a student’s dream is Devon’s story, a graduate of Seattle public schools who participated in the 2017-2018 cohort of the King County School-to-Work Program. Devon’s journey began with her family and their commitment to developing a strong school experience. Active and involved, Devon attended both special and general education classes in high school, was a cheerleader, and also an athlete on the unified soccer team. But all the while, she and her family were looking beyond high school. Her mother Sue explains “she expected to go to college at the end of high school, just like her parents and siblings.”

Like most students with developmental disabilities, Devon could participate in high school transition services through age 21, yet what is possible during and after high school transition is complicated at best. Sue understood that learning as much as possible about transition and adult services were keys to success. She attended King County Transition Resource Fairs (a big part of King County School-to-Work’s outreach) as well as school gatherings.  She connected with teachers, adult service professionals, and other families.  With these efforts, Devon met her college goal by attending Highline College’s ACHIEVE Program as part of her high school transition plan. Passing science classes such as oceanography and climate science, and becoming a great public speaker, Devon earned her ACHIEVE Certificate on campus, alongside other students with and without disabilities.

However, Devon and her family wanted more. For her final year of transition, Devon applied and was accepted into Seattle Children’s Project SEARCH program. Project SEARCH is an international model for transition services; students receive both classroom-based learning and work internships within a host business. These opportunities are provided in concert with employment services designed to support students to fulfill their employment needs and those of the business. In King County, the employment services most students receive at Seattle Children’s are funded by the School-to-Work Program and provided by the employment agency Vadis. Devon shared, “My Vadis experience was amazing… A job coach is someone who helps you get a job that you are passionate about.”  The goal of the School-to-Work Program is to help all students obtain employment by the time school ends and School-to-Work consistently exceeds national employment averages for young adults with developmental disabilities.

While at the hospital, Sue explained that Devon “worked in the cafeteria, and in the neurology department, stocking, filing, office tasks and cleaning. She landed a weekly greeter position at a local rotary, learning valuable public relation and hospitality skills.”  The position was part of the Partners for Work program, a Rotary District 5030 priority project created in 2008. Partners for Work is designed to assist employers in gaining access to the talented, untapped workforce of people with developmental disabilities. Devon recalls, “My coworkers helped me to understand the process of setting up tables and setting up the badges. Being a greeter was my favorite part of the experience because I got to meet some amazing people like the Governor.” King County has supported Partners for Work by contracting with Wise, a local nonprofit, to coordinate internships and develop the program with Rotary clubs countywide. Debbie Moore of Wise says that Partners for Work has grown to “32 of 45 King County Rotary Clubs” and has “led to 113 employment opportunities.”

Devon’s next big move came when the Rotary member organization Universal Cells announced a new position. Devon applied. “Universal Cells, it is a biotech company that’s doing stem cell science. Which is perfect for my skills and my passion for science” says Devon. “After the interview was over I went home and waited. When my job coach called me that next morning she said ‘I have exciting news!’ I remembered that when she told me that I got the job, and I burst into tears. I was so completely happy that my childhood dream came true.”

Devon ended her high school transition program with success, working 16 hours per week as a lab aide and she has since received a raise and additional work hours. “It has been 9 months and I’m enjoying more every day. Working as a lab aide and helping with cleaning, organizing, labeling, and the list goes on. My boss is super supportive of me as an employee and as a person. My co-workers are absolutely stunning to work with because they help me to achieve my goals.”

Congratulations to Devon and thank you to all King County School-to-Work partners and the many community members who create opportunities for students with developmental disabilities to succeed!