CindyVRAcademyAn unprecedented triad of partners linked up to provide workforce readiness training to youth with disabilities this summer.

The Center for Child and Family Studies (CCFS), the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department (SCVRD), and the Conference Center at the University of South Carolina (CC) collaborated for months to prepare and produce three sessions of an extraordinary new opportunity for youth ages 16-21 who receive services from the SC Vocational Rehabilitation. The goal of the Power Up Academy for Students with Disabilities was to provide pre-employment transition services, including workplace readiness training, post-secondary education exposure, and targeted instruction on self-advocacy and interpersonal skills.

Each session was a four-day, three-night career academy that covered essential soft and hard skills for students entering the workforce for the first time. It was rich in content specifically for students with disabilities. Participants learned useful skills such as how to set goals, formally introduce themselves, fill out job application forms, and determine the education or training necessary for their chosen career path. Other workshops included such topics as employment rights and asking for accommodations in the workplace.

There were also contextual experiences such as visits to job worksites around the Midlands area. Participants learned how to assess a workplace for the variety of jobs available, their fit in the company, the kinds of accommodations for disabilities that the company offers, and benefits they may receive with employment. Some of the businesses that partnered with us for the academies were the City of Columbia, the UofSC College of Nursing, the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, Colonial Life Insurance, and Wentworth Printing.

CCFS Director Dr. Cynthia Flynn found the applied portions of the curriculum particularly effective: “You can hear it, you can read it in a book, but until you actually practice it, you don’t really understand how to do [the job]. They’re practicing the new skills they’re learning, like interviewing, learning how to ask for special accommodations on the job, [and] other kinds of things.”

Each session served fifty participants so by the end of the summer, 150 young people were better prepared to enter the workforce and find a career path for their lives.

The partners worked hard to forge a new collaboration that would coordinate components of the academy. SCVRD, as the principal organization, furnished the goals and outcomes for the conference and grant funding for every aspect of the event. CCFS designed and wrote the curriculum of the activities and provided professional trainers to deliver that content. The Conference Center organized all hosting details such as housing and transportation. They also provided expert counselors who were attendant 24/7 to support each participant’s needs during the entire academy.

Now that the academy sessions have drawn to a close, CCFS is creating three final elements: a package of all materials for the academy that SCVRD can use in the future, analysis of data gathered in each session by our Research and Evaluation Team to help SCVRD calibrate the experience in the future, and a 9-month series of follow-up activities that will reinforce to participants what they were exposed to during the academy.

[Pictured above: CCFS Director Dr. Cynthia Flynn assists youth during the conference]