Every year, about 50 young adults head off to internships at casinos, hospitals, colleges and businesses in Atlantic and Cape May counties with the hope of turning that experience into a job.
Unlike most of their peers, they have a cognitive disability that limits their employment options, but not their willingness to work.
Last week, a small group celebrated its accomplishments at a luncheon at Outback Steakhouse in Egg Harbor Township. Restaurant owner Adam Pappas held the event because he was impressed with the teachers and counselors who train the workers and with the worker he had recently hired, Danielle Collepardi, 22, of Egg Harbor Township, a 2011 graduate of the Atlantic County Special Services School.
“Everyone here has learned from her,” Pappas said. “Everyone deserves an opportunity.”
By law, students with disabilities can stay in school until they are 21. For those who can work, typically their final two or three years are dedicated to vocational training. State agencies coordinate with county special services and traditional high schools to help identify graduates’ skills and match them to jobs.
But finding those jobs is a challenge that has been even more difficult during the recession.
“It’s always been difficult to find placements,” said Deborah Vaughn, program specialist with the New Jersey Department of Labor’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, or DVRS, who attended the luncheon. “We need the creativity of the job specialists to broker jobs, sell this program and see these employees as an asset.”
Each year, about 30,000 people with disabilities statewide receive job-placement services from the division, which operates 18 offices around the state and has an annual budget of about $53.5 million according to data provided by the state. Each person gets an Individual Plan for Employment, which includes job counseling, skills training and technology or transportation services they may need. Over the last three years, 11,884 individuals with disabilities were placed in jobs statewide.
Derek Nye, a worksite supervisor for the Atlantic County Special Services School career program, said typically about 10 graduates find jobs each year. Some have worked at several jobs to find a match for their skill level and interests, and some will turn an internship into a job.
The perfect fit
Robert Camp, 21, of Egg Harbor Township, was in his third year interning at Shore Medical Center when a stockroom job opened in November that his site supervisor, Terri Fithian, thought would be perfect for him. He got hired, graduated early, takes the bus to work and is hoping to get a driver’s license.
“I worked hard to get where I am,” he told classmates at the luncheon. “I continue to work hard every day. Just keep at it, and do the best you can.”
Nye said they emphasize a simple message to all students: Come to work every day. Work hard. Get along with everyone.
The Atlantic and Cape May special services schools operate on-site cafes, greenhouses and stores. Students who show an aptitude for work are then placed in supervised community worksites including AtlantiCare Medical Center, Shore Medical Center, Cape Regional Medical Center, Meadowview Nursing Home, Richard Stockton College, Atlantic Cape Community College, several casinos, Crest Haven Nursing Home, ShopRite and Acme. The students may get small stipends funded by grants or the hosting businesses.
As they graduate, the students are assigned to a job specialist through social services agencies such as Arc and the state DVRS.
Pappas hadn’t thought about hiring someone with a disability until Arc of Cumberland County employment specialist Mary Beth Cordle entered his restaurant. He agreed to interview Collepardi, who started working there in December, folding silverware into napkins, and serving as a hostess. She works three days a week but will move up to five. Pappas also plans to hire a second disabled person for the summer.
“We did the interview, made sure Danielle understood the job and were patient while she learned it,” he said. “We worked with her teachers, showed them what Danielle would be doing, so they could work with her, too.”
Other students have found work locally at Kohl’s, ShopRite, casinos and Marshall’s.
Most passionate worker
Michael Hyde, 20, of Egg Harbor Township, recently got a job in food service at AtlantiCare’s Mainland Division in Galloway Township helping to take orders and deliver meals to patients.
“That was the job I liked best,” he said of all of his internships. “I get to go up on the floor and talk to people.”
AtlantiCare chef Manuel Martinez called Hyde one of his most passionate employees.
“He just has a great personality,” he said.
While most of the jobs are entry-level, employers said the pride the workers take in them sends a message to all employees about the value of work and doing a good job. Pappas said his workers were so fond of Collepardi they attended one of her basketball games.
“They even made a banner for her,” he said. “She has such personality. We love her.”
Nye said transportation is always a major challenge because many of the graduates will never drive, and buses offer limited options. Some can work only part time, and others will be best suited for specialized sheltered employment for the disabled or volunteer work.
“It can be difficult for them after graduation,” he said.
Cape May County High School Principal Annamarie Haas agreed, but she said local businesses and agencies have been supportive. She said even a few hours a week may be enough for some of the graduates to maintain a link to their community.
Joanne Gahr, a counselor at the Atlantic County office of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Pleasantville, said they were always looking for businesses willing to hire someone who is disabled. There are tax credits available for businesses, and they also welcome part-time opportunities.
“Part time is great, even a few hours a week,” she said. “Not all can work full time. But they need something so they can feel productive.”
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