9:18 a.m., Sept. 11, 2009----A summer job is a rite of passage for most people, bringing with it that first taste of both adult independence and adult responsibility. For three young men with disabilities, a summer job with the University of Delaware grounds maintenance crew meant exactly the same thing.
This summer, Facilities-Grounds Services became the first unit at the University to employ young adults with disabilities under the auspices of the Swank Employment Initiative, a program managed by the Center for Disabilities Studies in the College of Education and Public Policy.
Funded by a $1 million grant from the Howard W. Swank, Alma K. Swank and Richard Kemper Swank Foundation, the Swank Employment Initiative works with individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities to assess their job skills and interests and prepare them for full- or part-time employment in the community. The program then helps identify appropriate job opportunities and provides on-site coaching once a position has been secured. It's a person-centered approach that takes into account each individual's goals and desires.
Brian Collins, Aaron Lewis and David Limprun entered the program in the spring of 2009 and were three of six individuals who applied and were interviewed for the internship positions with Facilities. They spent the summer tending the newly established landscaping around UD's Independence Hall residence hall complex and at the Visitor's Center on South College Avenue.
On Tuesday, Sept. 8, Collins, Lewis and Limprun were honored for their successful completion of the internship program at a special noontime gathering of their coworkers, supervisors and coaches.
According to Wendy Claiser, director of the Swank Employment Initiative, the other UD grounds crew employees could not have been more supportive of the interns.
“All of you have made a world of difference in the lives of these three young men,” she said, “and I just want to express the appreciation of all of us at the center for the efforts that each one of you has made in including them, from the lunch room to out on the grounds, throughout their internship program here at Facilities.”
Claiser and Beth Mineo, director of the Center for Disabilities Studies, also presented a special plaque to the Facilities staff for serving as the inaugural employer in the program at UD.
Claiser said she hoped the program's success at Facilities will encourage other units within the University to consider how they might employ individuals with disabilities.
“This is the beginning of many, many more opportunities,” she said. “Thanks to the launch of this internship at Facilities, we are building additional internships across the University, and it's because of the success of this program that we've had those doors open.”
Claiser also hopes to enlist businesses in Newark and surrounding communities for the program.
“We have about 20 individuals in various stages of the program right now,” she said. “Some are being assessed for their interests and abilities, some are involved in training, and some have prepared resumes and are ready to interview for positions. Sometimes employers are reluctant at first, but we provide a lot of support for both employers and employees.”
Mike Loftus, assistant director of Facilities-Grounds Services, commended the interns for doing a remarkable job and their coworkers for being so accommodating.
“We weren't sure at first how it was going to go, but I think it's gone great,” he said to his staff. “These guys have done good, and you guys have accepted them. And now these guys are ready for anything we could throw at them.”
The intern's direct supervisor, Paul Glenn, said he'd seen major changes in the interns over the summer.
“They're much more independent,” he said. “I can take them out on the job site and let them go, and they'll just take off. They're more proactive and know what needs to be done. They're ready to go out and find a job somewhere else. I would recommend them for a job at a golf course or a position like that.”
Deanna Pedicone and Sharon Lilley, who served along with Claiser as coaches for the interns, concurred about the growth they observed in the interns.
“I really saw the guys becoming more part of the team,” Pedicone said. “When we first started, we were each paired with one individual, and we were helping them learn the skills they needed. Whereas in the last few weeks, when they needed to learn something new, they would kind of look at us and say 'Well, Paul will teach me that.'
“So they transferred from wanting to learn from us and being comfortable with us to wanting to learn from their coworkers. And that was a natural movement away from being our employees to being Facilities' employees. And the Facilities guys went from asking us about how to approach teaching the interns to coming up with their own strategies. So it was like we worked our way out of job, which is the whole point of our job.”
Glenn underscored that the experience was a two-way learning curve. “I probably got more out of working with these guys than they did from me, just because it gave me the opportunity to help somebody,” he said. “Everyone deserves a chance, and if these were my kids, I'd want someone to help them out and give them a chance like this. It's a great program.”
As for Collins, Lewis and Limprun, the experience has opened a number of doors that may have previously been closed to them. While they may not be sure what they will do next, they all expressed hope that, with this experience under their belts and on their resumes, they will be able to continue working and supporting themselves as independent adults.
Article by Beth Chajes
Photo by Evan Krape