Most of us who are parents of special needs children have felt that moment of panic when we realize that high school, the last state supported program available for most of our children, is ending. And the panic is always around the question…what’s next?
Bob and I felt that panic as our daughter, Alex’s, graduation neared. At Evanston High School, she had a stimulated, fun, learning environment to go to every day. She had friends and teachers who loved and supported her. She learned to love to read and discuss books. She had several jobs, at a library, senior center, and mailroom. She learned how to get around Evanston, on foot and on public transportation. She was manager of the girl’s basketball team for five years and rarely missed a game, home or away. In other words, she had a busy, fulfilling life. What’s next?
For Alex, the question of what‘s next was alleviated for a time when she was accepted into the PACE Program at National Louis University. For the next two years, she was engaged, busy, stimulated with college life in a dorm, academic classes, work experiences and life skills coaching. We had a dream, of course, that she would leave PACE with a job. Given the realities of both the economy and the difficulty to find jobs for disabled young adults, that wasn’t in the cards.
The panic set in again. What’s next? She couldn’t sit around the house reading, watching television, listening to her IPod or talking on the telephone (all of her favorite activities). And there weren’t enough Special Olympics activities to fill her days. We couldn’t be responsible for keeping her busy all the time. And we didn’t want her to do just busy work; we wanted her work to mean something. It didn’t matter if she earned an income—just that she was productive.
So, we needed to answer three questions. First, what can Alex do well? That answer was simple…Alex’s strengths are structured tasks that have a beginning and an end. She can learn almost anything given a bit of training, repetition, demonstration and patience.
Second, where does she like to be? That too was an easy answer—one of Alex’s favorite places in the world is a local restaurant that we have been going to for over 27 years. She’s grown up there. The owners, management and even some o f wait staff have known her since she was a baby. One night at dinner I took the manager aside and asked the question…is there any chance you would be willing to give Alex a job as an intern (i.e. no pay). She smiled and said “what a great idea, let me talk to the boss and see what we can do.” A week later, it was a done deal. After sitting down with the owner and the staff, they came up with a job description. Being a small operation, there were always important things that needed to get done that often the staff didn’t have time for—filling sugar bowls and salt and pepper shakers, wrapping silverware in napkins, cleaning the menus, dusting the glasses and wine bottles. Recently, the restaurant has done some reorganization and don’t need her any more. She is no longer working there. But she did work two nights a week with a desk right in the front of the restaurant where she could also act as greeter on less busy nights. The two years she worked there, the restaurant got a valuable service at no cost and Alex got a chance to contribute.
But two nights a week still wasn’t enough. So, the third question was …who does she like to be with and how could we get a day job so she could be with that person? That too was easy…her best friend, Aurora, worked at a preschool with her mother. The school, like many others, was having some financial difficulty and had to lay off a couple of teacher assistants. So, I asked the question again…is there any chance you would be willing to give Alex a job as an intern (again, no pay). The answer was a resounding “YES”. After getting fingerprinted and passing a physical exam, she began working in a classroom with 3-4 year olds. She organizes play circles. She reads to the kids. She helps with meals. She is learning Spanish. In turns out that Alex is a very good disciplinarian and often is the first person that a child will listen to when acting out. She works four days a week. And again, while the school never could have afforded to pay her, she is providing a valuable service. Along with her Special Olympics activities and continued life skill tutoring, she has a very busy, structured, fulfilling life.
Certainly we would like her to have paid employment someday. But at this point in her life and ours, that isn’t important. She is continuing to learn skills that will make her even more employable in the future.
Sometimes all it takes is asking the right questions.